Luther’s Pedagogical Use of the Law


I continue to remain simply baffled by persons who can read Luther on the 10 Commandments in the Catechisms and not see that, regardless of what he may say elsewhere, he here uses the law pedagogically, i.e., to indicate the kinds of actions that we should and should not do. His critique of monasticism and such activities as pilgrimages turns on his insistence that God has told us what actions are pleasing to him. Take this passage from the Large Catechism on the 4th Commandment (honor your father and mother; 10 Commandments, paras. 116-120; Kolb/Wengert, pp. 402-3):

If God’s Word and will are placed first and are observed, nothing ought to be considered more important than the will and word of our parents, provided that these, too, are subordinated to God and are not set in opposition to the preceding commandments.

For this reason you should rejoice from the bottom of your heart and give thanks to God that he has chosen and made you worthy to perform works so precious and pleasing to him. You should regard it as great and precious – even though it may be looked at as the most trivial and contemptible thing – not because of our worthiness but because it has its place and setting within that jewel and holy shrine, the Word and commandment of God. Oh, what a price would all the Carthusians, both monks and nuns, pay if in all their spiritual exercises they could present to God a single work done in accordance with his commandment and could say with a joyful heart in his presence: Now I know that this work is well-pleasing to you.? What will become of these poor wretched people when, standing in the presence of God and the whole world, they will blush with shame before a little child who has lived according to this commandment and will confess that with their entire lives they are not worthy to offer that child a drink of water? That they must torture themselves in vain with their self-devised works serves them right for their devilish perversity in trampling God?s commandment under foot – for this they have only scorn and trouble for their reward.

Should not the heart leap and overflow with joy when it can go to work and do what is commanded of it, saying, “See, this is better than the holiness of all the Carthusians, even if they fast to death and never stop praying on their knees?” For here you have a sure text and a divine testimony that God has enjoined this but has not commanded a single word concerning those other works.

Luther’s interpretation of the commandment may or may not be correct, but he clearly thinks that it tells us the kind of actions we should do.

Note added: March 2: An excellent discussion of the issues involved here can be found in Martin Chemnitz’s Loci Theologici, Locus 14, Good Works, pp. 603-608 in Preus’ translation. where he asks: “Must the Law be presented to the regenerate in such a way that it is the norm and rule for the good works in which God wills that we carry out our obedience to Him?” Chemnitz answers: “The Law must be set before the regenerate in order that it may teach certain works in which God wills that we carry out obedience to him. . . . For what is simpler, what is plainer, what is more useful than this doctrine that the Law or the teaching of the Decalog must be set forth in the church of the regenerate, in order that there may be a definite norm to show what the works are in which God wills that the regenerate demonstrate their obedience.” (p. 603)


12 Responses to “Luther’s Pedagogical Use of the Law”

  1. vindicating elert Says:

    I have no qualms about the above. Yes, God commands this and all the commandments. Yes, we are commanded to do them. I have not been in disagreement with this. The rubber hits the road as to how these are done or if they can be done. And since God commands these things over sinners, there is no wriggle room for sinners under God’s current face of condemnation. God’s command is always total extending over one’s total life. And since the day of Genesis 3, God no longer waits to see whether we will do what God commands or not. God always is at the same time, Creator, Legislator as well as Judge.
    When the ball is in our court (in light of what God has commanded that we do), then the issue really becomes one of whether ethics are valid or not. I say “no” to ethics, ie. doing what God says we should do. I say “no” not to either doing or not doing what God commands. What God commands is always in effect (as well as his judgment on sinners made valid by his wrath in many visible ways). What I say “no” to is pretending we know what God’s will is as God has commanded it already and therefore come to the conclusion that we can draw out an ethical system based on a knowledge of right or wrongs (which has already been forfeited to us based on Genesis 3) then ascribing God’s blessing upon our attempt.

    I do not contend that the 10 commandments are valid and operative. They are valid and operative. But to think that we can do what God has commanded and do so believing that we do so under the congruence of God’s will, is simply blasphemous. And don’t point me toward someone who has already been redeemed by Christ, because redemption by Christ does not negate the operation of sin within the remaining “old person”.

    To approach this differently: Augsburg Confession article 2 is the first article of extensive commentary by P. Melanchthon in his Apology. The Roman opposition had responded to the original AC by first attacking the confessor’s understanding about sin/original sin. PM responds by first describing the Roman opposition as being soft on sin as well as trusting in a variety of philosophically based systems backed by their own use of Scripture. PM ultimately comes down to the assertion that unless God’s law and our sin are drawn to their logical conclusions, then the benefits of what Christ has done for us in the cross and resurrection have been left unused. Instead, for the Roman opposition, they have elevated their facere quod in se (ie. system of morality) above the benefits of the Savior. The forgiveness that Christ brings can only be the remedy for sin. And each one who has been encountered by Christ via Baptism and faith receives that benefit. Relying on systems of morality may be able to bring groups under order for the time being, but systems of morality informing groups are always operative within those groups of sinners.

    Luther, in fact, does illustrate well God’s commands and demands upon us through commentary on the 10 commandments. But Lutherans use the catechisms in a processive way, in that the commandments do not lead us to being better person, but instead lead us toward the recognition that we are sinners unable to escape God judgment.

    What the process of the catechism in the ideal way ought to do is to immediately confront the sinner with who God is. That is why the Creed is presented next in order of reading/teaching.

    To agree with you one one point: yes, Luther does use the 10 commandments in a paedigogical way, but with the view to driving exposed sinners to the God in Christ for forgiveness.

  2. vindicating elert Says:

    I said: “…but systems of morality informing groups are always operative within those groups of sinners.”

    I want to clarify the above by saying that groups/collectives are always collectives as sinners. There is no such thing as a collective of the redeemed in our sight.

  3. theoldadam Says:

    Vindicating elert has it exactly right.

    “Luther’s interpretation of the commandment may or may not be correct, but he clearly thinks that it tells us the kind of actions we should do.”

    NEVER tells us what we should do to be saved, or gain in the eyes of God. Never.

    As far as doing is concerned, Luther places it all on the horizontal (for the sake of the neighbor)…never the vertical…towards God.

    • Jonathan Hall Says:

      theoldadam writes, “As far as doing is concerned, Luther places it all on the horizontal (for the sake of the neighbor)…never the vertical…towards God.”

      I’m assuming that you’re speaking only with regards to salvation (either that, or the Old Adam is indeed speaking). In terms of human action, Luther frequently talks about doing what is pleasing to God. This is frequently in the “vertical,” e.g., the first three commandments. Given that Luther taught that the Ten Commandments are ordered from most important to least, I would say the “vertical” dimension of human action is primary for Luther. To put it another way, true love of the neighbor is impossible without love of God.

      Instead of doing what the church commanded apart from the Scriptures and therefore being saved, Luther turns this around into being saved and therefore free to do the works pleasing to God, as known through the Scriptures. The simple reason that Christians do good works is because God commands them.

      Luther writes that the Creed was “given in order to help us do what the Ten Commandments require of us” (Kolb/Wengert 431) and of the Lord’s Prayer: “Consequently nothing is so necessary as to call upon God incessantly and drum into his ears our prayer that he may give, preserve, and increase in us faith and fulfillment of the Ten Commandments and remove all that stands in our way and hinders us in this regard” (440-41). And of course, the Ten Commandments command faith and prayer, so Luther can say that the entire Christian life is obedience to the Ten Commandments. This might help explain why Luther himself recited the Ten Commandments daily.

      To summarize, paraphrasing Luther: We are neither to trust in our worthiness nor to relax in our unworthiness, but simply to pray and work as God commanded.

  4. tom pearson Says:

    Help me here, Dr. Root. You refer twice in this blog entry to the commandment as communicating “the kind(s) of actions” that we should do. Is this reference to “kind(s) of actions” pointing to a broad and generic category of action, or does it suggest speciifc actions in concrete circumstances? In short, does the pedagogical use of the law (as perhaps expressed by Luther) tell us at the highest level of generality which actions we should aspire to, or does this pedagogical use inform us as to what I should do right now, right here, in this immediate situation? If it is the former, then I don’t think we’re talking about ethics at all.

    I raise this question because I struggle deeply to make sense of purported ethical systems that are little more than collections of moral ideals having little direct purchase in the world of ethical decision-making we inhabit daily. The passage you cite from Luther’s Large Catechism, I fear, is an instance of the Decalogue presented as an abstract ideal, which renders it largely worthless for ethical reflection and action. It is the same problem I have with folks, even good Lutheran folks like Gene Outka and Larry Rasmussen, who in their different ways advocate for a “love ethic.” Love is a classic moral motivator, but it does not inform me as to what should be done in a specific circumstance; it turns out that “love” is another abstract ideal of limited usefulness in ethics.

    Since the quoted passage above form the LC involves the fourth commandment, let me offer a personal example of what I struggle with.

    Last year, as my mother entered her eighth year of a progressive dementia, we (my father, my siblings and I) made a decision to place her in a residential nursing home. She had been living at home, with my father as her primary caregiver. She was adamant that she wanted to be at home with my father, with no one else permitted to care for her. However, as her condition deteriorated, my father could no longer adequately care for her. She was alert enough to know that she was being placed in a nursing home, and she protested vigorously, believing in her lucid moments that we had all betrayed her. So, in this situation, what does the fourth commandment tell us? What God-pleasing moral action best represents the injunction to honor father and mother? What decision conforms to a “love ethic”? Do we place her in the nursing home against her expressed wishes? Is that honoring the parent? Do we keep her at home where she feels comfortable and safe, and tell my father to suck it up? Is that the loving action? As my mother loses touch with the external world, do we arrange for a humane and dignified passive euthanasia? Would that be God-pleasing?

    If we’re taking about ethics in cases like this, it does no good to say “these are difficult situations,” or “we can never be sure we’ve done the right thing.” Of course they are difficult situations; but we routinely encounter difficult situations in this life, and it is precisely in such situations that ethics needs to inform us regarding what is the good. And if it’s true that we can’t really know what is the right action in a difficult circumstance, then ethical deliberation will turn out to be a sham.

    Ethics must be operational in the ordinary world of congested actions, motivations and intentions, by informing and guiding the typical processes of moral decision-making. If the law has a pedagogical use in this sense of ethics — if the law can give me all that I need to render a moral judgment in some concrete event — I haven’t seen it yet. The example from Luther’s LC above seems to hold up a moral ideal, a broad category of action in the abstract; but the fourth commandment doesn’t tell me what to do with my mother in this moment. Until it does, it ain’t ethics.

    And so I ask: when you refer to the law as delivering the “kind(s) of action” we should do, are you speaking of abstract ideals, or are you takling about ethics?

    • Michael Root Says:

      A large question, for which I have nothing like a comprehensive answer. Here are some elements I would want to build on:
      1. My sense from a relatively limited reading of the pre-20th-century Lutheran ethical tradition, from Melanchthon and Chemnitz through a few of the scholastics and into the nineteenth century, is that Lutherans often presented the elements of a comprehensive ethic in the form of a commentary on the Ten Commandments, interpreted in dialogue with the law written on the heart, i.e., a sort of natural law. This did tend to produce a fairly abstract ethics, although with a bit of ingenuity, individual authors could produce quite specific conclusions. I have read, but right now can’t find the reference, an early Lutheran moving from the commandment to keep the Sabbath to the conclusion that pastor’s must be paid a living wage.
      2. I would think that a good ethics would often be more specific on what one cannot do than on just what one should do. I agree with Catholic teaching that some acts are inherently evil and simply not to be done, e.g., the direct and intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion or euthanasia. Here I think ethics should be clear: just say no.
      I would also think that ethics sometimes can clearly indicate which of two acts under consideration should be done. In the quotation I gave from Luther, he clearly seems to think that we have divine guidance if we are considering spending considerable funds on a lengthy and expensive pilgrimage or supporting parents. The 4th Commandment is specific.
      3. Beyond that, I would think that one cannot remove the need for the exercise of the virtues of wisdom and prudence in application of ethical principles or rules. Rules are not self-applying and so judgment is needed. I do think one needs a fairly thick ethic, with both teleological and deontological elements, which I think has been true of classical Christian thinking. In addition, a discipline of casuistry, in which some habits and skills are developed in the application of rules and principles, seems to me essential. But judgment cannot be removed.
      I am not sure that is much of an answer, but it is what I would think needs to go into an answer.
      Michael Root

  5. M. Martin Says:

    While we can certainly agree with Vindicating Elert’s comments under the rubric of what it means to be justified before God, does this necessarily mean extending all of this talk of sinfulness into the realm of sanctification? Granted, the two are sides of the same coin; yet, I fear our language is starting to idle and become problematic for us when we continually play the sinner card in an effort to maintain a posture of humility which, pursued to its logical ends, is in danger of itself being distorted into a kind of pride. Confronted with a case as in Tom Pearson’s response, are we simply to throw up our arms and say, “read the Creed” when confronted with such painful, difficult, and ultimately tragic temporal circumstances? At some point, we must act – mindful of our sinfulness, full of penance and confession, no doubt – but action is required, for the sake of obedience to Christ’s command to love our neighbor.

    The use of certain trodden and worn Lutheran slogans and of certain reiterations of interpretations of the Confessions are themselves kinds of actions. But are they truly loving – even loving of God? And, irregardless of what Luther, Melanchton, or any other fallible human beings say in acting, are we to reduce the clear teachings of Christ as merely abstract ideals, and with them, the entire Christian life?

    It seems to me that when St. Paul declares that “In Christ there is a new creation,” this describes more than forensic justification of individual sinners. In Baptism, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, God is raising up a people to proclaim the Good News to all the earth, to be agents and progenitors of the work begun in Christ through the Spirit’s power. Are the only actions we are given speech-acts? Or, are we to take seriously Christ’s own promise of power, to grasp THAT promise in faith, which means, consequently, utilizing that power, under God’s guidance and empowerment by the Spirit, for the sake of love? And might Gospels like Matthew, whose overall focus is not merely kerygmatic but precisely the ways in which the kerygma is made manifest by the life of discipleship made possible by the death and resurrection of Israel’s God’s Son, furnish us with a more robust sense of mission, one in which preaching and practice are as inseparable as Word and Sacrament?

    Because we have failed to be missional in the ways imagined and commanded by Christ, we have reduced obligations of the law and the challenges of God’s Word to pretenses to pursue false humility under the guise of remaining as much a sinner as we can. We are always sinners, yes. But it is such as these that God’s Word calls and adopts as God’s children, giving them the gift of the Spirit so that they might bear fruit, and, in the process, proclaim the Gospel of Christ through word and deed. Now that everything old has passed away and everything has become new (we do believe this, right?), how might we accept this gift by sharing it with others?

    Perhaps Dr. Root’s implication is that our Scriptures offer more resources than we care to admit. We are always sinners – but also saints. Its time we started living like the latter, even as we confess like the former.

  6. vindicating elert Says:

    “We are always sinners – but also saints. Its time we started living like the latter, even as we confess like the former.”

    The primary shift within current systematic theology and esp. ethics is to fall prey to the old problem of descriptive vs. embedded methods. In our reflection on Scripture we continually approach issues as if human self-reflection is all that we can ever hope to gain from being impacted by God’s authority. The latin term “extra nos” radically posits the issue into God’s hands and therefore inflicted upon his creatures. We so-called moderns resist the effect of the “extra nos” and conclude that the only impact that is made upon us is only our own self-reflection.
    This borders on atheism at its most extreme.

    God as both Creator, Preserve and Judge inflicts upon us all the changes and chances of history and we cannot escape these changes esp. in the certainty that we are creatures who are headed toward death. To continually affirm that we are both sinner and saint is a self-reflection with both critique and resolution based on our self-created ways and means for solving the issue. In God’s eyes alone are we saints and it is hubris for us to believe what that looks like least of all believe that we can manage what sanctification looks like based on our own systems of morality. We stand as sinners alone before Christ’s cross, ie. within the very arena where genuine resolution is operative. What lies beyond Christ’s cross is a walk in faith.

    • M. Martin Says:

      “To continually affirm that we are both sinner and saint is a self-reflection with both critique and resolution based on our self-created ways and means for solving the issue. In God’s eyes alone are we saints and it is hubris for us to believe what that looks like least of all believe that we can manage what sanctification looks like based on our own systems of morality.”

      V.Elert, I couldn’t agree more. However, what I think Dr. Root, and with him a large portion of the Christian tradition, is advocating is not our own “system of morality,” but the gift given by God in Scripture of clearly constructive teaching about how to pursue receiving, living into, and using, the grace of justification given through faith. If we truly believe that we are adopted as children of God and given God’s Spirit, this confers a certain degree of dignity and with it an expectation to take hold of the teachings of Scripture as God-enabled possibilities – always in co-operation with, and ultimately, led by, the Holy Sprit and the Church community.

      I believe it is a larger hubris to be so concerned about keeping oneself at what one considers a respectable distance from what one calls atheism, works righteousness, etc, that we fail to hear the entire Gospel – a Gospel which includes Christ’s invitation to “be ye perfect.” Not something we achieve by our own efforts or by our own system of reality – but by allowing the Holy Spirit to move us to act as children of God and heirs to the Kingdom.

      Take the analogy of a sailboat on a lake. When the wind does not blow, it can do nothing except haplessly turn its rudder rapidly hoping to gain some movement. But it is without power to attain the goal it had set out to reach. But should the wind blow, the sails are made full, and suddenly, one is able to work the rudder – not independent of the wind, but in co-operation with and empowered by that wind’s force. I believe that this is what Scripture ‘s picture of sanctification is about. Our efforts are themselves the work of the Spirit, yet part of that gift is the call to work the rudder. Which also means using the navigational assistance of the Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, as well as most of the New Testament and Old Testament material which speaks of injunctions, recommendations, exhortations, and commands to love God and neighbor, concretely and intentionally. If we fail, we are not lost. But if we fail to try, and believe a mere passive (read: non-existent) view of sanctification, we simply are being unfaithful to the Gospel, preventing ourselves from proclaiming it not only by Word, but also in Witness and in mission.

      Hardly bordering on atheism.

  7. vindicating elert Says:

    In the note referencing M. Chemnitz, the quote indicates along with similar views of the later P. Melanchthon (hereafter, PM), that there was a significant shift from the evangelical basis after Luther’s death. This unfortunate shift esp. in ethics carried over into Lutheran Orthodoxy of the 17th and early 18th centuries, influencing later attempts at creating a Protestant ethic. Even the Niebuhrs accepted this shift in their positions.

    To re-engage what Luther and the early PM (embedded in the unaltered Augsburg Confession as well as the Apology) thought about this, look at Werner Elert’s works and see the beginnings of renewing a methodology for ethics based on the evangelical basis, cf. Das Christliche Ethos.

    • Michael Root Says:

      This historical picture would seem to follow from your comments:
      After Paul, the entire church misunderstood the essence of the gospel for about 1500 years. In the early 16th century, Luther rightly grasped the gospel, but then his closest associate, Melanchthon, followed by Chemnitz and the rest of Lutheranism misunderstand the gospel for the next 400 years, until a few professors in the 20th century again got it right.
      I would think two conclusions then obtain:
      1. If the gospel is this hard to grasp and if a basic grasp of the gospel is normally intrinsic to justification, then the number of the redeemed is quite small.
      2. When Jesus said that he would send the Spirit of truth, who would lead us into the truth (John 16:13), he was mistaken, since the Spirit of Truth must be missing if so few grasp the truth.

  8. Rev. Paul T. McCain Says:

    Dr. Root, I’ve been doing battle with the unfortunate antinomian streak that has taken hold in American Lutheranism, for quite some time now. I really appreciated your words.

    I have had pastors tell me that we must never imitate Paul’s style in his epistles of preaching Law/Gospel/urging to good works.

    And various and sundry assorted nonsense like that.

    The aversion to speaking about the Christian life of holiness, good works and service to Christ and neighbor is bearing its bitter fruit throughout American Lutheranism.

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