Dear Johannes Cochlaeus,
You always were a clever one, but this time you’ve gone too far.
You started all this with your “Seven-Headed Luther” illustration. Clever strategy that one: Depict Luther as one whose self-conflict gives rise to blasphemy, in a way so outlandish that his disciples will share it one with another. Many modern Catholic polemicists, your heirs, like to exchange your apocalyptic allusions for psychological ones—but they still deploy your strategy, by portraying Luther as the Daddy-Issue Theologian, suggesting that he projected his experiences with a harsh, domineering, and somewhat abusive father onto his understanding of God. This is just another variation on your larger theme: Luther was a man of inner conflict, and this causes him to blaspheme God.
It took you five hundred years, but your strategy is finally working. Lutherans did share around your “Seven-Headed Luther” illustration, though mainly as a gag. (Remember Luther’s comment upon seeing it? “It would look better if the heads had necks.”) Daddy-Issue Luther never took off, either. But you knocked it out of the park with Law-Gospel Luther.
This was a brilliant move. You distorted a doctrine that Luther taught and that Lutherans love to extol. The shift was slight, so as not to alarm the church bodies most particular about doctrine, but it was significant enough to make the theology blasphemous. You made sure that inner conflict in Luther was still there. The result? The Law-Gospel Luther is wildly popular and has become a dominant and widely accepted account.
For hundreds of years, Lutherans understood both Law and Gospel in content-laden terms. The Law was God’s will for human conduct, all the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Because men disobey God’s will, the Law condemns—but it does much more than condemn, and it isn’t even fundamentally condemning. The Law also protects us from harming each other in the civil realm, and it guides the Christian in pursuing a holy life. To those who through the Law become conscious of their sin and repent, God gives the Gospel, the message of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. With this understanding, the Law and the Gospel are united in the one will of God, a will of Fatherly love and kindness.
But you had to go and change all this. I don’t know how you did it, but I know what you did. You made the theology of Werner Elert (1885–1954) extremely popular, so that it influenced theologians and pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. And so you shifted the definitions of “Law” and “Gospel,” to dwell on the psychological effects. “Law” becomes simple awareness of God apart from Christ, an awareness that always leads to dread of him as disapproving and wrathful. “Gospel” becomes a counter-account of God, that depicts him as accepting and approving through Christ. These two knowledges of God are not reconcilable; rather, Christian faith is discussed as living in the paradoxical tension between these two polar understandings of God. Of course, Luther’s copious writings provided ample opportunity to lift quotes to affirm that this was his perspective.
With this account you got the self-conflicted Luther, a man of inner turmoil and a fragile ego. You also got a blaspheming Luther. This perspective makes God out to have Borderline Personality Disorder, a God who in one breath says, “I hate you,” and in the next breath says, “I love you.” And with Law-Gospel Luther, you got what Seven-Headed Luther and Daddy-Issue Luther never provided: Luther’s disciples avidly promote the Law-Gospel Luther.
Countless blogs, podcasts, magazine articles, and books promote this understanding of Luther. And it’s not only Lutherans who are promoting Law-Gospel Luther. Recently, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today published an article by an Episcopal priest depicting Luther in this way.
Johannes, please stop. It’s been five hundred years now, and you’ve taken this strategy far enough.
I’ll be over here with my old-fashioned understanding of Law and Gospel, waiting for your response.
Christopher Jackson is pastor at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northeastern Wisconsin.