Herman Utics. A Dutch theologian? Oh, wait. I mean “hermeneutics.” Seminary debt justifies the use of such words. Hermeneutics is the discipline of biblical interpretation – how to properly understand God’s Word. A right understanding of God’s Word is essential for the right understanding of the Gospel. The Reformation is a result of hermeneutics.
Confessional Protestants are the grateful heirs of the “solas” of the Reformation. We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone – according to Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. Can I get an “amen”? But, sadly, fewer Protestants are aware of how we got there. And some today are downright opposed to the way we did. Hermeneutics isn’t just a fancy word. Proper biblical interpretation is essential to our salvation. It was essential to the Protestant Reformation – and the recovery of Gospel clarity. And yes, we have Luther to thank for it – and by extension, those crazy, lovable confessional Lutherans.
Some well-taught Protestants are aware of one aspect of hermeneutics clarified during the Reformation. We call it the analogy of faith. Behind the diverse human authorship and varied historical contexts of Scripture, we have one Divine Author. And so we believe that the Triune God speaks clearly in His Word – at least on the important stuff like how sinners are made right with a holy God. All this assumes another fancy word – perspicuity. That word basically means “clarity” – which the word “perspicuity” itself clearly lacks. (But again, I paid a lot of money to expand my theological vocabulary. So there.) However, we do not read the Scripture as detached scientists – despite technical jargon like “hermeneutics” and “perspicuity.” We read the Scripture as Christians – as sinners in need of God’s mercy. We read it as God’s Word – to us, and for our salvation.
This analogy of faith means that Scripture interprets Scripture. More specifically, we are to understand the less clear passages of Scripture in light of the clear. The most basic application of the analogy of faith is that the Old Testament is interpreted in light of the New. Thus we read all the Scripture in a Christ-centered way – as the apostles & co. do in the NT. We are not free to interpret the covenants or prophecies of the OT according to our whims or our obsessive end-times imaginations. “The New is in the Old concealed, and the Old is in the New revealed,” according to the Augustine-attributed maxim.
But there is another Reformational Herman Nautical principle that has sadly found itself in stormy seas these days. In fact, our little Gospel boat is getting swamped once again, and in danger of sinking. (Forgive me my puns, and work with me on this metaphor, please.) What do we need to navigate to the safe harbor Christ has won for us? We need to properly distinguish between Law & Gospel – that is the true north by which we navigate. God’s Word is two words: His Word of command, and His Word of promise. His Word of judgment, and His Word of justification. His Word of guilt, and His Word of grace. In the Law, God shows us our sin. In the Gospel, God shows us our Savior. So this is not about the OT / NT division. This is about how God speaks to us as our holy Maker and Judge – and how He speaks to us in Christ crucified and risen, as our gracious Redeemer. And how He does so, from Genesis to Revelation.
Luther recovered this distinction, as he saw it imbedded in the Scripture itself. The Law & Gospel hermeneutic is even more important than the analogy of faith. As a sinner, prone to error, you may fail to properly interpret a less clear text in light of the more clear (like entire swaths of Christians do when they read the rest of the Bible through the grid of Revelation!). That might make you weird, but it doesn’t necessarily kill the Gospel. But if you consistently confuse Law & Gospel, the outcome is spiritually devastating and may be eternally fatal. The recovery of this distinction is why we had a Reformation in the first place – and put the “sola” in sola fide.
Medieval Catholicism specialized in muddying Law & Gospel. In fact, they called the Gospel of Jesus Christ a “new law.” Wait a minute, they still do that (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1961-1974). Yikes! That’s as bad as a hipster, soul-patch pastor who tells us to “live the Gospel, and be the good news.” And it’s ALMOST as bad as allegedly Reformed guys of the Federal Revisionist variety explicitly REJECTING the Law & Gospel hermeneutic. They assure us that the Law can be heard as “good news by the faithful and the gospel by the rebellious as intolerable demand” (Google their JOINT Federal Vision statement – as in, “Joints may have been involved in the writing of this statement,” as in, “What were you guys smoking?”) Um, when Paul cried out, “Wretched man that I am!”, I don’t think he was hearing the Law as “Gospel.” In fact, Paul apparently wasn’t feeling very “faithful” at the moment. But rather rebellious. And still in need of the real Gospel – the one that declares that Christ crucified is our only righteousness before God.
Oh, that’s right. Romans 7:13-25 doesn’t apply to Paul – or the Christian’s real time experience. You know, the one where Paul indeed loves the Law according to his inner man – but is driven to near despair because it continually points out his sin. When Paul says, “I” – he clearly DOESN’T mean, “I, your beloved Apostle Paul, who still struggles with sin and therefore still needs the ‘therefore, there is now no condemnation’ of Romans 8:1. Just as YOU do!” It’s obvious Paul means, “I, NOT-Paul, using a highly sophisticated, subtle-as-a-snowflake literary technique to mean, ‘I-corporate-Israel-in-Adam.’” NT Wright said it. Fawning and forgetful “Protestants” believe it. That settles it. Apparently, first century hearers of Paul’s Epistle had advanced degrees in such highly complex literary techniques, which would make Wright’s interpretation immediately obvious to them. So if you’re struggling with remaining sin, Christian, look for help elsewhere. Maybe do some penance, or something. I think Luther tried that. (Full disclosure: I use a lot of sarcasm in my writing – which is, of course, the only biblically sanctioned form of humor. See 1 Kings 18:27 & Galatians 5:12, if you want the proof texts.)
Hermeneutics really matters, people. And so does history. And so does the Reformation. Lose the Law & Gospel hermeneutic, and you lose the “sola” in sola fide. And the rest of the solas fall away, as well.
Luther defined his terms this way: “By ‘Law’ we should understand nothing but God’s Word and command in which He commands us what we are to do and not to do and demands our obedience or service… The Gospel is such a doctrine or Word of God as does not demand our works or command us to do anything but bids us simply receive the offered grace of the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation and be satisfied to have it given to us as a present” (What Luther Says, CPH, 732).
On the importance of this distinction, Luther wrote: “This difference between the Law and the Gospel is the height of knowledge in Christendom. Every person and all persons who assume or glory in the name of Christian should know and be able to state this difference. If this ability is lacking, one cannot tell a Christian from a heathen or a Jew; of such supreme importance is this differentiation. This is why St. Paul so strongly insists on a clean-cut and proper differentiating among Christians of these two doctrines, the Law and the Gospel. To be sure, both are God’s Word… But everything depends on the proper differentiation of these two messages and on not mixing them together; otherwise one will know and retain the proper understanding of neither the one nor the other; nay, while under the impression of having both, one will have neither…. Therefore place the man who is able nicely to divorce the Law from the Gospel at the head of the list and call him a Doctor of Holy Scripture, for without the Holy Spirit the attainment of this differentiating is impossible.” (Ibid.)
Confessional Lutherans continue to champion this biblical hermeneutic. Gotta love ‘em for it (and I do). They believe, teach, and confess it in the Formula of Concord (Epitome V, Aff. Theses 1-4): “1. We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between law and Gospel is an especially glorious light that is to be maintained with great diligence in the church so that, according to St. Paul’s admonition, the Word of God may be divided rightly. 2. We believe, teach, and confess that, strictly speaking, the law is a divine doctrine which teaches what is right and God-pleasing and which condemns everything that is sinful and contrary to God’s will. 3. Therefore everything which condemns sin is and belongs to the proclamation of the law. 4. But the Gospel, strictly speaking, is the kind of doctrine that teaches what a man who has not kept the law and is condemned by it should believe, namely, that Christ has satisfied and paid for all guilt and without man’s merit has obtained and won for him forgiveness of sins, the ‘righteousness that avails before God,’ and eternal life.”
Though we should credit and thank Luther and our Wittenberg brothers – this “especially glorious light” dawned on the Reformed, as well. These connections are well-documented by R. Scott Clark over at Heidelblog, and by Mike Horton & company via the aptly titled Modern Reformation magazine (last minute gift idea: buy a subscription for your favorite FV pastor!)
One quickie from the Continental Reformed. From Ursinus’ Prolegomena to his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism: “The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures. The law is called the Decalogue, and the gospel is the doctrine concerning Christ the mediator, and the free remission of sins, through faith” (2).
What about Westminster? It’s right there, folks, implicitly undergirding the bi-covenantal structure of Reformed theology in the covenant of works (Law) and the covenant of grace (Gospel).
If you don’t think such a distinction is biblical, read Romans again. Read Galatians again. Slowly. Prayerfully. Not as a scientist. But as a Christian. A Christian sinner, still in desperate need of a Savior and His Word of grace. And you will find this distinction still makes all the difference – between despair and comfort, pride and humility, and yes, even damnation and salvation.