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  • God's Two Words: Law and Gospel in the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions ed. by Jonathan A. Linebaugh
  • H. George Anderson
God's Two Words: Law and Gospel in the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions. Edited by Jonathan A. Linebaugh. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018. 253 pp.

In 1549 Thomas Cranmer, seeking to forge a united front of reformers, invited Melanchthon, Calvin, and others to join him in producing "some work that should embrace the chief subjects of ecclesiastical doctrine." Cranmer's project fell apart, but in 2016 Jonathan Linebaugh gathered representatives of Lutheran and Reformed traditions to explore two of those "chief subjects"—law and gospel. This book presents ten papers from that colloquium. [End Page 203]

The authors represent the conservative wings of both traditions. Introductory essays present classic definitions of law and gospel from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord and, for the Reformed, the Leiden Synopsis and the Westminster Confession of Faith. However, both Piotr Malysz' essay on the law (15–44) and Charles Arand's exegesis of the Apology on the gospel promise (65–83) prefer Luther's insights to later formulations. Arand interprets the Apology through Luther's "happy exchange" and Malysz argues that the Formula "loses sight" of Luther's dynamic view of existence as simul iustus et peccator. The Reformed authors seem more interested in restating their tradition than in reinterpreting it.

Erik Herrmann's essay on "A Lutheran Response to the Reformed Tradition" (155–182) is a good place to start in understanding how the two strands originated and how they have produced two different theological structures. Using Otto Herman Pesch's categories of "sapiential" and "existential" Herrmann describes the Reformed approach as sapiential—"an invitation to contemplate the vision of God's glory and thus "enjoy him forever" while for Luther "The wisdom of the cross calls us to forgo the lofty vistas." He continues, "Whereas Luther was fixed on the scriptures as divine address and the Word of God as viva vox, Calvin could with equal force portray the scriptures as 'spectacles'" (179–180). This broad distinction is borne out in several of the other essays. One gets the impression that Reformed theology emphasizes the broad sweep of God's action from Eden to the eschaton, while Lutherans focus on the critical moment between God and the sinner. In his chapter on "The Law-Gospel Distinction in Lutheran Theology and Ministry" Steven Paulson celebrates the difference: "Gospel does not describe God's essence, but gives the one thing that sinners can actually use: the forgiveness of sins" (119). Summarizing the two approaches from his Reformed perspective Kevin Vanhoozer suggests "Whereas for Lutherans preaching the law/gospel dialectic provokes an existential crisis, the Reformed "see the law/gospel distinction as something that can be taught (learned) and walked (lived)" (227).

Two concluding chapters of "Reflections" summarize the contrasting positions without turning up the confessional heat. Mark [End Page 204] Mattes (197–219) highlights the differences between a Reformed covenantal theology and a Lutheran distinction between law and gospel. He concludes, however, that "Both traditions would be wise to acknowledge where the other has an edge in the contemporary world" (218). The Reformed vision of a life led to the glory of God can be a bracing antidote to the sense of purposelessness that enervates a society of "unencumbered selves." Lutherans, on the other hand, can offer "a healthy dosage of mercy" to those broken souls who have been burdened by a religion of rules. Vanhoozer (220–238) provides a Reformed perspective by noting that "the Reformed tend to focus on salvation history that begins with humans as creatures (i.e., Genesis) and hence under a law that expresses God's will as a "perfect rule for righteousness." Conversely, Lutherans tend to focus on salvation history that begins with humans as sinners (i.e., Galatians), and hence under the law that kills and condemns" (223f). He then draws implications for other theological issues and proposes further dialogue. "It may take two or more theological frameworks to do justice to the truth of Scripture's testimony, just as it took four gospels to tell the one story...


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