On Law and Gospel…
But why is "gospel" such a magic word? Why is gospel so different from other sets of words? Luther raises the question himself immediately following his testy remarks about great scholars not being the best Christians:
The movement in the passage is again unmistakeable. Gospel is not "letter" but "spirit" because it gives what law can only demand or (even) promise. Gospel is not another "interpretation;" it is something actually given. Grace, Luther says, does not "exist" in the mind or in books, nor does it flow so readily off the end of our pens and pencils; it is "poured abroad in thy lips;" it is something preached. And unless it is heard as gospel it simply remains "dead letter."
Now the question is How did Luther arrive at this peculiar kind of talk? For the most part in our histories of theology we have been led to think that the distinction between law and gospel is a result of Luther's struggles with the problem of conscience and guilt. To find "a gracious God" Luther was driven to distinguish between God's activity as judge and lawgiver and God's salvific activity in Jesus Christ. The distinction between law and gospel is the solution to the problem of the anxious conscience. While that is no doubt true, it is only a part —and maybe only a small part at that —of the story. The texts we have quoted from Luther show that the distinction is intimately bound up with— indeed, is the solution to —the problem of the interpretation of the sacred text. Ultimately, of course, it would not be possible, for Luther, to divorce the problem of conscience from the problem of interpretation. Every interpretation is, in fact, a covert if not an overt soteriology. That is what Luther discovered. Since, however, this is to be an essay on law and gospel in Luther's "hermeneutics," we propose to concentrate on Luther's understanding of law and gospel as a solution to the problem of interpretation. This is a story still not very widely known and helps to avoid some of the pitfalls of earlier approaches. As a "solution" to the problem of interpretation, the law/gospel distinction flows out of the ancient problem of letter versus spirit. This is already apparent in the texts quoted from Luther. The Romans lectures represent a stage in Luther's career where letter/spirit language and law/gospel language are still generously intermingled. To understand how and why the problem of let- ter versus spirit modulated for Luther into law/gospel we have to sketch in broad and, I fear, oversimple strokes just what the problem seems to be.
The antithesis between letter and spirit gained its foothold in Christian circles largely, no doubt, through Paul's use of it in II Corinthians 3:6: "The letter (written code) kills, but the Spirit gives life." Due to quirks of historical fate, the passage came to be taken as a kind of hermeneutical key to understanding the Scriptures in general, to say nothing of life as a whole. The passage was understood as pointing to a distinction between a purely outward or "literal" meaning of the text and an inner or "spiritual" and "life-giving" meaning. The hermeneutical task was to find the right method or way to get from one to the other. It was a question of levels of meaning or content. One must learn how to get from mere dead letter to life-giving Spirit.
Origen and much of the tradition following him interpreted the antithesis in a Platonizing sense: the letter "kills" and is "dead" because it is limited to the sensible world. If one remains stuck with it alone, one may perish in the land of appearances—or at least one will not become an accomplished "gnostic." One must pass beyond the sphere of what is perceptible to the senses to the intelligible world, the world of eternal ideas where there is no death, if one wants to rise above the level of the mythology of the simple believer. The Platonizing schemes became the justification for "spiritual" exegesis: The mere literal, especially where it was offensive or obscure, was to be raised to the level of the spiritually edifying by allegory, tropology, and anagoge.
Under such auspices, the historically unique could hardly escape coming under considerable suspicion. The implication was that mere historical truth was insufficient, at best only a "sign" or surface manifestation of an eternal truth, a doctrine, or law. The church always insisted, of course, that only literal truth, not flights of spiritual fancy, could serve as a basis for dogmatic demonstration. But the method is still thereby intact: even literal truth, it would seem, is valuable to the degree it is rendered into dogmatic truth. To be salvific, the "accidental truths of history" must either yield or be translated into "eternal truths of reason," as Lessing was later to put it. The historical account must finally take the shape of eternal doctrines, laws, or eschatological verities.
Such a move could only mean profound turmoil for the church on virtually all levels. It meant constant battle between literal and spiritual senses, as well as tension between "historical" and "spiritual" modes of life. It meant confusion in the interpretative enterprises of the church. The literal alone was usable for dogmatic proof, yet the spiritual alone was supposed to be life-giving! One was hard pressed to know whether exegesis or dogmatics was the primary task of theology, or whether they were really the same thing! Furthermore, if the hermeneutical task is to translate from the literal to the spiritual, the question of authority becomes urgent: Whose translation is right? Whose allegory is correct? The hermeneutic demands an authoritative office to forestall chaos. Again, one wonders if things have changed much!
It is perhaps fair to say that the Middle Ages marked a more or less steady move away from the Platonizing of Origen and the excesses of spiritualism towards a more healthy appreciation of the literal, historical text. This move culminates, just prior to Luther, in the work of interpreters like Nicholas of Lyra, Faber Stapulensis, and perhaps also in Nominalism with its literalism and insistence on biblical authority. Welcome as such a move was exegetically, it only masked and further aggravated the basic hermeneutical problem: the relationship between the text and the hearer-believer. How does one get "life-giving" spirit if now the whole "spiritual" world is cut away and one is left with only bits of historical information and perhaps a few word studies? Again, the question is not of mere antiquarian import. It is, no doubt, the modern question: How does a mere literal historical text have any abiding or "eternal" significance for those who come a couple of thousand years too late? How does one bridge the time gap if the "spiritual" superstructure is dismantled? Reduction to the literal just by erasing the spiritual does not solve the problem. To put it in more modern dress: historical and "critical" exegesis is not likely to serve the soul for daily bread. Luther apparently knew that already when he at first vehemently resisted the literalism and historicism of scholars like Nicholas of Lyra. There had to be a better way to handle it.
Yet Luther also apparently realized there was no way back. The folly of the old method had been to think that "life-giving Spirit" was a level of meaning that could be gotten at by interpretation. But interpretation does not yield spirit, it only yields more letter. Even if the Holy Spirit himself, in the Scrip- tures, inspires an interpretation beyond the original literal or historical meaning, that is still only more letter.
Interpretation does not give life. As a matter of fact, "spirit" in the biblical sense, for Luther, has nothing to do with penetration into the "intelligible world" at all. In his argument with Emser Luther makes this quite explicit! "Likewise, even though the things described in Scripture mean something further, Scripture should not therefore have a twofold meaning. Instead it should retain the one meaning to which the words refer" (p. 179). Again, to Emser: "You will not find a single letter in the whole Bible that agrees with what you, along with Origen and Jerome, call the 'spiritual meaning. . . .' Some people, out of ignorance, therefore attributed a fourfold meaning to Scripture: the literal, the allegorical, the anagogical, and the tropological. But there is no basis for it" (pp. 180-81). For Luther interpretation cannot mean intellectual flight into the intelligible world of eternal ideas. But that only makes the problem more pressing—it is not a solution, as the modern world has mistakenly assumed. Where does one turn when the intelligible world has been dismantled? That is now the question. To get at this question one has to penetrate more deeply into the matter and engage some of the root theological and anthropological issues. The basic problem with the hermeneutic which tried to move from letter to spirit via interpretation was not its fancifulness, its imaginativeness, its allegorical excesses, or any such, but its theological and anthropological presuppositions. The method made the whopping assumption that the move proposed was to some degree possible for the human "spirit" and that language has the function of assisting in such a move. Now, it really makes little difference what sort of a move one conceives it to be as long as that is the fundamental presupposition. One could be a Platonizer like Origen and his followers or a modern Heilsgeschichtler moving from the historical "facts" to the "divine plan" (the Geist of the whole); the move is basically the same. "Spirit" means the intelligibility one arrives at by the interpretative process. The anthropological presupposition accompanying such moves is that human spirit as "rational" and "free" can—indeed, must—make the move from letter to "spirit" if there is to be salvation. The text is the jumping-off place, the exercise ground, the symbolic "map," for the human spirit and its flight, the material upon which it works in its freedom.
The root problem had already come to light, as one might expect, in the argument between Augustine and the Pelagians. Augustine already saw that the Pelagian position went hand in hand with a certain attitude towards the sacred text. If "the letter kills" means that the text is somehow inadequate or obscure and has to be translated into "life-giving spirit," then one's relationship to the text could only be a Pelagian one. The text does not change or transform the hearer, rather the hearer changes the text into the hearer's own story. That is the "secret" of allegory. Furthermore, the inner motive of the method is thereby revealed: it is ultimately a defense mechanism against the text. Thus Augustine saw that the only way to close the door on this Pelagianizing relation to the text was to insist that the "letter which kills" should not be taken to refer to the inadequacy or obscurity of the letter, but rather to the law, the written code, which kills by its accusing voice. When such a move is made, the way is opened for the text to call the hearer to account, to begin to change the hearer, not vice versa. Furthermore, only then could one begin to grasp what the life-giving spirit might be: the "making alive" that the text itself delivers.
Augustine's insight at this point was not, it seems, taken up or made much of by the later tradition. So the problem festered until it came to a head again in the exegetical and spiritual struggles of the young Luther. Luther saw with unparalleled clarity that the traditional method was a defense mechanism against the text and that it only delivered more "letter" and ultimately "the soul's death." The spiritual flight prescribed was simply law, not spirit; it was not only unscriptural but existentially destructive.
Now we can go back to our question about what to do once the "intelligible" world has been disqualified as life-giving spirit. Again to make a long story short, we can say that Luther's move was simple and yet far reaching in its implications. He took the II Corinthians 3:6 passage to mean just what it says, literaliterl "The letter kills, but the spirit gives life." What the passage describes is not an attribute of the text but an activity. The "letter," the written code, the literal history attacks and kills but the spirit gives life. Indeed, only when the text does that "killing" does it become life-giving. Only when the text works on us does the Spirit who inspired that text begin to change and transform us.
The "letter" is not, therefore, something obscure, weak, or insufficient. It is not "dead" because it belongs only to the sensible world. If it "kills" it can by no means be taken lightly or short-circuited by interpretation. The "letter," the whole long history of God's struggle with his people culminating in the cross, spells in the first instance but one thing for sinners: death. The hermeneutic takes the form of the cross: the literal history kills the old, lays it to rest; the Spirit can then raise up the new by faith alone. The text is not a jumping-off place for flights of spiritual fancy, rather it cuts off all such flight: it kills.
Therefore, the Holy Scriptures are not reduced to bits of historical information or word studies. It is the Word of God, the sword of the Spirit, which does what it says. The Spirit is not some upper or inner level of meaning which one reaches by interpretation or perhaps by appropriate spiritual exercises. The Spirit is not a hidden agenda. The Spirit is the Holy Spirit of God who comes precisely in and through the letter, the history, the text, the proclamation of it, to kill and to make alive. With that the hermeneutical foundation for Luther's understanding and use of law and gospel is laid. The literal and historical sense is the only legitimate meaning. Beyond that, however, it is a ques- tion of what the words do, how they function in actuality. The Word of God is active and living. It does just exactly what it says.
Even with that foundation the building is not yet complete. W e are still only describing what the Word does. We are still merely interpreting, lecturing about the Word. If we were to complete the move here suggested, we could only take the Word and do it, do what it says it does. Otherwise, for all our talk about the "living" Word, it just remains interpretation, the soul's death. Luther was supremely aware of that. One cannot interpret one's way out of death. Thus the final move, and the final solution to the problem left by interpretation, has to be the move to preaching. This entails, for Luther, the transition from talk about letter and spirit to the preaching of law and gospel. This transition comes to its sharpest focus in the debate with Emser. The reference to II Corinthians 3:6 is precise and explicit:
Such passages from Luther raise hackles, of course, due to current hassles about the relation between the Testaments. We shall say something about that a bit later. For now, the point is that to complete the move from mere talking about to doing, one must arrive at the preaching and, indeed, distinguish between kinds of preaching: law preaching and gospel preaching. Without such distinction, Spirit is never given, grace never actually delivered. Luther saw, of course, what the tradition had overlooked: II Corinthians 3:6 is about ministry and preaching, not about interpretation! One must do what the passage says, not merely talk about it!
There is yet more. Not only must the distinction be made so that grace and Spirit are actually given, actually preached, but also so that the law will actually be preached in all its clarity and brilliance. (This, incidentally, is the beginning of an answer to the charge that the distinction is detrimental to the "Old" Testament.)
Luther goes on to point out that Paul's insistence was that one cannot avoid the letter or the law, indeed, that one must preach to make the letter clear and to "lift the veil" from the face of Moses to make it clear that the works of all are sin and that there is nothing good in them unless the grace of the Spirit enters into them. What is ruled out thereby is precisely a Pelagianizing relation to the text:
Nor are those who are already "of the New Testament" to escape such preaching:
So we have gotten a glimpse, if only in hurried and sketchy fashion, of the place of law and gospel in Luther's "hermeneutics," and to some degree, at least, established our thesis. Knowing the difference between law and gospel and thus realizing that they have to be preached is the solution, the telos, of the problem posed by interpretation. Once the spiritualizing superstructure of the old hermeneutics (should we also say the new hermeneutics?) has been dismantled, the way is open to understand the text in terms of what it does in its own right. As law (letter which kills) and gospel (spirit which gives life) the text sets its own agenda. The text gains thereby the "autonomy" interpreters who know nothing of preaching so vainly seek. When "rightly" applied, the distinction between law and gospel makes it impossible for us to change the text into our own story (allegory). Rather the sacred text is at work to change us, incorporate us into its story: the story with a future, not "the soul's death." The "killing" function of the law cuts off every "metaphysical" escape, every defense mechanism against the text, every self-justification, in order to save, to put us back in time before the God of time, to make us historical beings, to wait and to hope. "For if we die with him shall we not also be raised with him?" According to Luther, that is what would have to be preached. Unless it is so preached, we have not interpreted aright.
Via Forde's "Law & Gospel in Luther's Hermeneutic"