Luther in english part 2 -“Lex Sola Accusat”? – by Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz, MA D.D
Luther in english
by Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz, MA D.D
“Lex Sola Accusat”?
Modern Appraisals of Law, Gospel, and the Tertius Usus Legis in the Theology of Luther
PREVIOUS SCHOLARSHIP HAS FOCUSED HEAVILY ON THE RELATIONSHIP of the Law to the Christian life in comparing the theology of Luther and the early English evangelicals. Yet the question of whether or not Luther himself ever even taught an implicit “third use of the Law” has been the subject of much controversy ever since the middle of the twentieth century. While the formal development of an explicit “third use of the Law” in Lutheran theology actually post-dates the reforming careers of Tyndale and Frith, addressing the issue with regard to Luther’s theology is extremely relevant and needs to be explored in the light of reassessing the influence of his theology of Law and Gospel on early English evangelicals. No other scholar of the early English evangelicals has so far seriously acknowledged or addressed the lack of consensus even among Lutherans concerning Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel nor integrated an assessment of the different sides of the debate into their argument. The premise of a single opinion has been largely taken for granted, yet not one of these scholars gives any impression of a firsthand, comprehensive understanding of Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel in its historical context.
It is important to state upfront that the evidence indicates that the explicit formula of a “third use of the Law” did not originate with Luther but rather with Melancthon in the mid-1530s. However, the question remains unsettled whether Melancthon’s numbering of a “third use” was consistent and even derivative of Luther’s own theology. To understand the nature of the debate with regard to Luther, it is important to first identify what came to be known as a “third use of the Law” in the theology of Melancthon as well as the later Lutheran Formula of Concord.
There does seem to be a consensus among many modern scholars that during the middle to late 1520s a shift occurred in Melancthon’s theology in which he emphasized in new and significant ways the relationship of the Law to good works in the life of the Christian. Ken Schurb points out that many scholars since the 1940s have argued that Melancthon’s formulation of a distinct “third use of the law” adopted by Lutheranism is actually an aberration from Luther’s faith and Gospel centered thought. Jeffrey K. Mann importantly identifies attempts made to “rescue Luther from Lutheranism,”3 which is reminiscent of debates within the Reformed tradition concerning the continuity between Calvin and the later Calvinists.
Some have attributed this shift to Melancthon’s background in Humanism, which was characterized by a strong emphasis on renewing Christian moral piety. Jeffrey K. Mann, however, has argued that it naturally emerged from his growing concern over moral apathy in the German churches in the late 1520s, and that abuse of the doctrines of sola fide and the forensic imputation of righteousness in justification by libertines “made it impossible that he would not explicate a use of the Law for redeemed sinners.”
It is incontestable that Melancthon was the first to speak explicitly of “three offices of the law” (Tertium officium legis) and a “third use” (tertius usus) in his Loci Communes of 1535, and later he refers to a “three-fold office of the Law” (triplex usus legis). According to Mann and Wengert, however, the substance of the doctrine of a “third use” actually originates earlier in Melancthon’s 1534 Scholia on the book of Colossians. Wengert adds that the roots of this use go back even further to Melancthon’s earliest insistence on the necessity of obedience in the life of the Christian, but that its more formal development emerged out of Melancthon’s stronger clarification of justification in 1532–34 as the forensic declaration of righteousness through faith in Christ. Ken Schurb believes Melancthon was consistent on his teaching of the “third use” even since 1521. According to Gerhard Ebeling, Melancthon’s first formal reference to a usus legis or a duplex usus legis probably did not occur until his Commentary on Romans in 1532, but he observes hints even of a “third use” as early as Melancthon’s Instructions for Visitors (1528) and the Augsburg Confession (1530). While it was Luther who coined the concept of the “usus legis” for the Lutheran tradition, Ebeling argues that it was Melancthon who eventually refashioned this into a more polished “scholastic schema of the triplex usus.” For Ebeling, the substance of the triplex usus legis is apparent in Melancthon in 1535, although this particular formula itself appears only much later in the Catechesis puerilis of 1540 and the Loci Communes of 1543.
Of course, disagreements about when Melancthon actually began teaching a “third use of the Law” hinge on how it is defined. An adequate place to look for such a definition is Melancthon’s own Loci Communes, which he personally favored among his other writings as a definitive expression of his theological convictions. Schurb argues that the outline of Melancthon’s Loci of 1543 is basically the same as that of the edition of 1535, and Osslund claims that there is little development of the Loci after 1535. With regard to Melancthon’s explicit teaching of a “third use,” this remained unchanged between its introduction in the Loci of 1535 and the final edition of 1559.
In the Loci Communes of 1543, Melancthon defines the Law as the “eternal and immovable rule of the divine mind and a judgment against sin.” Schurb argues that this definition is not explicit in the previous 1521 and 1535 editions of Melancthon’s Loci. In 1521, the emphasis is on the freedom of the Christian from the Law, whereas in 1535 the emphasis shifts to moral Law as a reflection of the universal natural Law. This will for humanity is revealed not only through Scripture but also through the natural Law written on every human heart. The laws of the Old Testament apply only to the Christian in so far as they agree with natural Law. Whereas the moral Law of the Decalogue reflects the eternal mind of God and is universally valid, the civil and ceremonial laws are not binding for any other nation other than Israel under the Old Covenant. Yet any Old Covenant civil law in harmony with natural moral Law remains equally valid, and Melancthon recommends that Gentile nations study the civil code of Israel for many useful laws.13
The moral Law of the Decalogue is restated throughout the whole of Scripture and reflects the natural moral Law given to the first humans. The moral Law given to Israel by Moses was really only a reiteration of the Law implanted within the hearts of the first humans by nature. As a consequence of the Fall, however, this moral Law was clouded by sin and is not readily embraced as are the natural laws of mathematics. Furthermore, moral laws of an outward social orientation, such as laws against murder, are more obvious to the natural person than is the commandment to love God from the heart and to worship Him alone.
According to Melancthon, the proper work of the Law is to be distinguished from the proper work of the Gospel. Law and Gospel form the “chief teaching of Scripture, to which all parts of Scripture must be wisely compared,” and their proper distinction is “a light to the entire Scripture.” This distinction between Law and Gospel is not equivalent to a distinction between the Old and New Testament canon, as if Law is only found in the former and Gospel only in the latter. The promise of the Gospel was preached immediately after the Fall, and the Law is found in the teachings of Christ. The promises of the Gospel must also be distinguished from promises of the Law. The material promises contained in the Law are conditioned by obedience, whereas the spiritual and eternal promises of the Gospel are free through faith in Christ alone. The Gospel broadly understood does contain the preaching of repentance and good works, but its primary purpose is the assurance of forgiveness through Christ. Melancthon does believe that the Old Covenant, understood in its “most proper sense,” was primarily characterized by the preaching of laws, while the New Covenant is “the proclamation of the remission of sins and eternal life.” Under the Old Covenant the Law was given to Israel to preserve the social order of a community carrying the promise of the Messiah, but God’s principal purpose for giving the Law was to reveal the need for the Messiah by declaring God’s eternal judgment upon all who failed to keep the Law.
The preaching of the Law must always precede the preaching of the Gospel so that the promise of the Gospel is rightly appreciated. Once the promise of forgiveness is embraced in Christ, the Christian is now liberated from the condemnation of the Law to delight in the Law and to obey it freely in love rather than in fear: “the beginning of keeping the commandments is the acknowledgment of Christ.” The works of the other commandments are not even pleasing to God if not flowing from obedience to the First Commandment, which is to believe and worship the one true God. Even after justification by faith, and though obedience to God increases, the Christian still cannot fully satisfy the Law through good works for they remain imperfect and are only accepted by God on account of faith in Christ.
If the preaching of obedience to the Law does not imply that people have the natural power to fulfill it, and if justification is by faith alone in Christ, as Melancthon believed, then for what reason does God give the Law? To answer this common question posed to the evangelical reformers, Melancthon proceeds to define “three uses or duties for the Law” (tria esse Legis officia seu triplicem usum). Melancthon defines the first use of the Law as the “pedagogical” or “civil use” (paedegogicus seu politicus) found in 1 Timothy 1:9 (“the law is laid down for the unrighteous”). This describes the power of the Law to restrain the rebellion of the unbeliever for the sake of public peace and order. God administers temporal punishments for disobedience to His Law through governments, plagues, war, and famine. Not only do these restrain evil but they keep the moral conscience intact for the work of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel. Melancthon describes this discipline of the Law as a “schoolmaster to Christ” (paedagogia in Christum). According to Wengert, Melancthon restricts this pedagogical use of the Law to its civil use, whereas Luther also identified it with the theological, or second, use of the Law. Melancthon acknowledges that God even allows true Christians to experience sufferings, though these are “mitigated for the godly,” which keep them humble toward their sins.19
Melancthon then defines the second use of the Law as its power to “show our sin and to accuse, to terrify, and to condemn all men in this misuse of human nature.” This use of the Law, commonly known as the usus theologicus, spiritualis, or elenchticus, is what disposes the conscience toward the gift of the Gospel, for a knowledge of sin and the fear of God’s wrath is necessary for desiring the salvation promised in the Gospel. Melancthon considered this early on to be the Law’s primary use. He states that the Law is a “perpetual judgment which condemns sin in the entire human race” and that “there is no doubt that the voice of the law condemning sins must constantly be set forth and taught in the churches, and indeed it would be a monstrous crime to conceal God’s judgment and His voice which announces His wrath against sin.” This advice was obviously meant for the sake of unbelieving parishioners and follows the antinomian rejection of the preaching of the Law in the later 1520s. In his earlier Apology to the Augsburg Confession (1531), Melancthon stated that the “law works wrath; it only accuses; it only terrifies consciences.” Yet true Christians no longer stand under the condemnation of God’s wrath. Although the Law continues to reveal their imperfections, it no longer possesses authority to condemn them.24
Melancthon then defines “the third use of the law” (Tertio quaeritur de usu Legis) as applying only to the “regenerate” who are “free from the Law” and justified by faith. This freedom is from “the curse and condemnation” of the Law, but the Law is to still be preached to the Christian with the Gospel on account of the flesh for the increase of repentance and faith in the mercy of Christ. The Law also teaches Christians what kind of works God says are good so that they, influenced by the flesh, do not create works of idolatry.
According to Melancthon, the “third use of the Law” applies only to the justified and regenerate Christian, but only on account of his or her sinful nature. The “third use” in the life of the regenerate is distinct from the other two uses in the unregenerate since it only applies to those who have the Spirit of God, are free of the condemnation of the Law through faith, and have the earnest desire to fulfill it from the heart. In other words, the “third use” is not for the purpose of restraining the unbridled evil of the wicked nor is it concerned with disposing the unregenerate conscience towards repentance and faith for justification, but with preserving in an ever increasing manner a heart of repentance, faith, and earnestness to mortify sin in the life and spiritual battle of the Christian. In his Apology to the Augsburg Confession (1531), Melancthon even stated that “the keeping of the Law should begin in us and increase more and more.” Wengert also argues that what sets the third use apart is the active use of the Law by the believer to please God in obedience, whereas the former uses are passive and used by God upon the unbeliever.27 This is true in a sense, since only the justified Christian has the heart to truly keep the Law, yet it is important to stress that for Melancthon this very willing and walking is born of the Spirit of God by faith in the Gospel. Yet Melancthon also admitted that perfect obedience was not possible on account of the flesh. In the “third use,” then, God also continues to use the Law with regard to the weaknesses of the Christian for the renewal of repentance and faith and, through the Spirit, to light the path of godly obedience and resistance to sin on account of the opposition and corruptions of the flesh.
Next to the writings of Melancthon, the Formula of Concord (1577) is another critical place to look for a formal definition of a “third use of the Law” in Lutheran theology. However, there is actually some debate whether the Formula of Concord even teaches a “third use of the Law” in the same manner as Melancthon. The Formula of Concord emerged out of doctrinal divisions within Lutheranism in the 1550s as an effort to unify and consolidate the Lutheran churches in the face of both Catholic and Reformed theologies. A series of conferences led to the drafting of the Formula of Concord in 1577 made up of the shorter Epitome and longer Solid Declaration. Religious leaders in various German territories signed the Declaration, and in 1580 the Book of Concord containing the Formula of Concord and other major Lutheran confessional documents was available for distribution.
Werner Elert and Ragnar Bring argue that the Formula of Concord does not define a “third use of the Law” in a Melancthonian sense. According to Bring, the novelty of Melancthon’s introduction of a “third use of the Law” was its distinctive application to the Christian as “new man,” whereas the Formula of Concord defines the “third use” in terms of the first and second uses applied to the believer on account of the flesh, which he argues is actually more consistent with Luther’s theology. Ken Schurb, on the other hand, argues that the Formula of Concord is indeed “Melancthonian” on the issue of the “third use” but that it reflects a particular phase in his thought, namely the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and the Apology of 1531. Gerhard Forde believes the Formula of Concord to be largely ambiguous on the question of the “third use,” and Scott Bouman observes that such ambiguity opens it to interpretation. This lack of consensus, of course, results from differences in defining the “third use.”
The Formula of Concord does agree with Melancthon in defining the proper tasks of Law and Gospel. According to “Article V,” the “Gospel” strictly defined is the promise of forgiveness in Christ, although understood more broadly incorporates “the entire doctrine of Christ which he proclaimed personally in his teaching ministry and which his apostles also set forth.” Understood in their proper senses, the Law accuses and condemns whereas the Gospel declares forgiveness. Yet the “Gospel” broadly understood also acts like Law in the sense that the sufferings of Christ are an “earnest and terrifying preaching and advertisement of God’s wrath.” In this instance, however, those sufferings are functioning as Law, which is the “alien work” of the Gospel broadly understood leading to its more proper task of promising comfort and forgiveness in those same sufferings. “Article V” of the Sold Declaration adds that the word “repentance” also possesses a dual meaning in Scripture. Sometimes it refers to “the entire conversion of man,” but when distinguished from faith refers simply to contrition for sin. Repentance in the second sense comes by the preaching of the Law or the Gospel broadly understood, but repentance in the first sense includes the preaching of both Law and Gospel in their proper senses, for without the promise of the Gospel there is only delusional self-righteousness or hopeless despair.
The “third use of the Law” is addressed in “Article VI.” The Epitome states that the reason for its inclusion is the result of disputes over “whether or not the law is to be urged upon reborn Christians.” The article states that the Law has been given by God for three reasons. The first agrees with Melancthon’s “usus civilis,” or the Law extorting outward obedience from unbelievers by means of prohibition, threats, and punishments. The second agrees with the “usus theologicus,” which is the accusation of the conscience on account of sin and the deserving of the wrath and condemnation of God leading toward repentance and justifying faith in the Gospel. The third reason is defined as the following: “after they are reborn, and although the flesh still inheres in them, to give them on that account a definite rule according to which they should pattern and regulate their entire life.”
The article explicitly affirms that the Christian is free from the condemnation and compulsion of the Law with regard to the new man but that the goal of redemption is the keeping of the Law. Even Adam and Eve in their innocence had the Law written on their hearts and the Christian who is justified by faith lives in the Law.
The Epitome clearly states that the Law is for believer and unbeliever alike. With regard to the believer, this is on account of the incomplete renewal of the Christian here and now and the desires of the flesh, “which clings to them until death,” which make it necessary “for the law of God constantly to light their way lest in their merely human devotion they undertake self-decreed and self-chosen acts of serving God.” Furthermore, the preaching of the Law is required because the “old Adam” (“alte Adam”) remains opposed to the new desires of the Spirit, makes the believer sluggish, and needs to be persuaded by threats and punishments to surrender to the Spirit in obedience to God. The Epitome distinguishes, however, between unbelievers and “the regenerated according to the flesh” since the latter, in so far as they possess faith and the Spirit, do have a new desire to obey “as if they knew of no command, threat, or reward.”
The Solid Declaration expands on this point in the Epitome by stressing that the Law makes demands but cannot provide the means for them to be fulfilled. Truly good works are only empowered by the renewing work of the Spirit who is received through faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While the Spirit instructs Christians in the knowledge of the Law, He also rebukes them as often as they “stumble.” According to the Solid Declaration, reproof of sin is the “real function of the law,” and this is true for believers as well on account of their remaining weaknesses and imperfections.
Like the Epitome, the Solid Declaration defines “Law” as the “immutable will of God.” While the Christian delights inwardly in the Law and in the Spirit obeys willingly and freely, he or she is also at war with the old nature that remains at complete enmity with the Law. The coercion and force of the Law are needed, then, for the Christian only with regard to his or her old nature. The “alte Adam,” like an “unmanageable and recalcitrant donkey,” still needs the club of the Law through instructions, threats, punishments, and miseries. This is remarkably similar to a statement made by John Calvin with regard to the Law’s third use: “The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work.”
The Solid Declaration reiterates that Christians also need the Law in order that they might not, under the deception of being led by the Spirit, establish rules of piety without the authority of Scripture. Furthermore, the teaching of the Law is needed to keep the Christian humble toward his or her own works, and the Law acts as “a mirror” revealing the impurities even of the believer’s works. Yet the believer is reminded in the Gospel that all his or her works are acceptable to God only through Christ and that God is pleased with the inward willingness to obey through the Spirit.
The Formula of Concord is mostly in agreement with Melancthon on the teaching of the “third use of the Law.” Both link the task of the “third use” to the justified Christian in terms of his or her “old Adam.” Where the Formula of Concord stands in more direct contrast with Melancthon is in its explicit rejection of good works as necessary for salvation. In his 1535 Loci Communes, Melancthon stated that good works in the Christian life are necessary for salvation. In the 1543 edition, however, he did change his wording to emphasize that good works are necessary for “retaining our faith,” stating that “the Holy Spirit is driven out and grieved when we permit sins against conscience … faith is cut off through sinful works.” Ken Schurb suggests that this modification was made to satisfy criticisms of Luther but only to make more explicit what he meant in 1535. Indeed Melancthon had became implicated in a controversy in the 1530s between Conrad Cordatus (1476?–1546?) and Caspar Cruciger (1504–1548) over the necessity of good works with regard to salvation. This debate flared up again as the subject of intra-Lutheran strife in the 1550s and provides the backdrop for the carefully worded statements of the Formula of Concord.
To Melancthon and the Formula of Concord, then, goes the credit for the formal definition of a “third use of the Law” in Lutheran theology. Yet it is quite important to note that Martin Chemnitz (1522–1586), a Lutheran theologian and principal author of the Formula of Concord, in a commentary published posthumously in 1591 on Melancthon’s Loci Communes, actually ascribes the origin of the threefold division of the Law to Luther in context of his discussion of the Law and the justified Christian in his Galatians commentary: “Luther in a very learned way sought the foundations of this doctrine in the Epistle to the Galatians, and divided the use of the law into one aspect which was civil and one which was theological. Likewise in Galatians 5 there is one use of the Law in justification and another for those who have been justified. From this Luther constructed the threefold division of the uses of the Law.” This comment has been overlooked by modern scholars who dismiss the possibility that Luther himself was behind the origins of the “third use of the Law,” a use that is more readily associated with the Reformed tradition.
It is important to acknowledge, however, that Chemnitz’s treatment of the “third use of the Law” is polemically charged, particularly as it relates to defending the preaching of the Law against antinomians and with the purpose of wanting to demonstrate his faithfulness to Luther’s theology. Therefore, this comment cannot simply be taken at face value, for it is at least possible that his interpretation was skewed by an apologetic and rhetorical agenda. It must be compared with Melancthon, the Formula of Concord, and ultimately Luther.
Chemnitz opposes those who appeal to the freedom of faith and the Holy Spirit to justify their own subjective inclinations. Rather, he states that the “apostles everywhere preach about the new obedience of the regenerate and clearly seek the description of this new obedience in the Decalog.” Chemnitz then delineates three separate causes for the “third use of the Law” (Tertius usus) in the life of the believer. First, he states that the Law of the Decalogue adequately prescribes the good works that please God. Secondly, the Law continues to humble the Christian by revealing remaining imperfections. Although this has to do with the continuing function of the Law to reveal sins, it is extremely important to note that Chemnitz refrains from equating this with the “second use of the Law” (Secundus usus Legis), which he identifies as applying to the justification of the unregenerate. Thirdly and lastly, the Law is important on account of the fact that the believer is not yet fully spiritual, but is paradoxically both an “old” and “new man.” It is on account of the flesh and the fact that faith does not possess full power and spiritual renewal is not complete that the Christian still benefits from a certain amount of compulsion: “For we experience that the new obedience is not so voluntary a thing as a good tree which brings forth its fruit without any command or exhortation.” These statements of Chemnitz are essentially the same as those found in the Formula of Concord and the later editions of Melancthon’s Loci Communes. Whether or not Chemnitz is right to ascribe the origins of the “third use of the Law” to Luther has been a matter of great debate since the mid-twentieth century.
In response to Karl Barth’s lecture “Gospel and Law” (“Evangelium and Gesetz,” published 1935), a series of reactionary works appeared by Lutheran theologians Werner Elert, Paul Althaus, Gerhard Ebeling, and Ragnar Bring to defend the paradigm of “Law and Gospel.” In the lecture, Barth purposefully shifts the order of the paradigm to stress the goodness of the Law as inherent to the covenant Promise, “that the Law is nothing else than the necessary form of the Gospel, whose content is grace.” For the Lutheran theologians, this turned the Gospel into Law and made the good news a matter of works. This resulted in a surge of scholarship devoted to the interpretation of historic Lutheran texts and documents.
According to one such scholar, John Calvin was the one responsible for the “leveling out” of the “contrast between law and gospel” in his stress on the role of the Law as a normative rule for Christian conduct. Indeed, in the Institutes Calvin does identify the primary function of the Law to be that of instructing and exhorting the believer to good works, which Elert identifies as the Gospel serving the Law within a covenantal framework. Elert even suggests that this statement is a polemic against Luther who always identified the primary purpose of the Law as its “usus theologicus,” or the revelation of sin. Scholars such as Elert argue that the “third use of the Law” is un-Lutheran, that it was an aberration introduced by Melancthon, but given even greater prominence by Calvin and Reformed Protestantism. This Reformed emphasis on the Law in the Christian life is blamed for tendencies toward legalistic moralism in later Puritanism.53 It is precisely this emphasis that Barth seemed to reaffirm in his lecture and that was believed by his Lutheran critics to be detrimental to the integrity and priority of the Gospel.
Elert’s most significant contribution to the discussion of the “third use” in Luther is his essay exposing a forgery in the Weimar Edition of Luther’s works. In Luther’s A Disputation Against the Antinomians (1538), three uses of the Law are clearly described in detail. However, Elert argues that this passage appears in only two of the existing nine manuscripts of the disputation and was probably interpolated later by an unknown author. In fact, no actual minutes of the entire series of disputations exist. Prior to the nineteenth century, Luther’s theses were the only source of knowledge regarding the antinomian disputations. Even when discovery was made of the earliest known record of the disputations, this could not be dated any earlier than 1553. One clue for Elert that the “third use” text does not belong to Luther is the association of the pedagogical use of the Law with the civil use, or usus politicus, rather than with the usus theologicus. Elert proposes that this association is more akin to Melancthon and was probably inserted as if they were the words of Luther by an unknown editor. Of the only two texts that do contain the “third use” passage, one author has been identified as Israel Alectriander, a student of the University of Wittenberg beginning in 1550, twelve years or so after the actual event of the disputation. Elert considers this text, then, to be a cornerstone proof inappropriately used by many previous scholars to argue for a triplex usus legis in the theology of Luther.
Gerhard Ebeling agrees with Elert, though with some modifications. Ebeling observes that Luther only ever formally spoke of a “duplex usus legis.” Ebeling agrees with Elert that the one text mentioned above is pseudopigraphal. Ebeling enlarges on Elert’s forgery thesis, however, and actually pinpoints three of nine manuscripts that contain the disputed “third use” text, although in the third manuscript it falls in a place remotely distinct from the other two. That these texts all appear in different places with no textual variations may suggest a common editorial origin. Ebeling also importantly notes that the oldest manuscript (Helmst. 773, dat. 1553) does not contain the interpolation of the “third use” passage.
One other “third use” passage in Luther is found in his exposition of Galatians 3:23–29 in the Weihnachtpostille of 1522, which does refer to a “threefold use of the Law” and was translated by Martin Bucer in 1525 as triplex usus legis. Ebeling argues, however, that upon closer examination Luther is referring to something completely different from what is commonly identified as a “third use of the Law.” Luther is distinguishing here between complete disregard for the Law, outward compulsion by the Law, and inward desire for the Law. Ebeling convincingly demonstrates that this is not how Luther elsewhere even formally defines the “usus legis.”
One noteworthy attempt has been made to defend the “third use” text in the antinomian disputations. In an unpublished dissertation, Norman Lund argues that Melancthon’s formulation of a tertius usus legis was commensurate with Luther and may even have been a reiterating of Luther’s position. He acknowledges along with Ebeling that only three of the nine manuscripts of the disputation contain the text, but argues that there are “wide divergences” beyond whether or not the text is included. Lund actually suggests a “deletion” thesis, that this text was in fact removed from the other six manuscripts. Contrary to Elert and Ebeling, Lund argues that only four of the nine manuscripts could really be used to deny the authenticity of the text (Goth. 264; Helmst. 773; Pal. 1827; Rig. 242). Of the three that do contain it (Helmst. 722; Aug. 67; Monac. 940), two manuscripts place the text at variable locations after the closing of the disputation while the remaining manuscript (Monac. 940) places it several pages earlier in a previous argument. Lund suggests that the probable reason for this discrepancy is due to the appearance of an “M. Georgius” whose impertinence during the disputation caused him to be completely omitted in three of the manuscripts. Therefore, the single copyist of Monac. 940, probably for polemical reasons, decided to move the words of Luther made after the formal closing of the disputation into this earlier section. Two of the six manuscripts that do not contain the text (Helmst. 688b; Homb. 74) end the recording of the disputation well before any of the others so they cannot even appropriately be used to argue in support of the forgery thesis of Ebeling and Elert.
Lund proposes that remarks made by Luther himself after the formal closing of the disputation were obviously not included by every copyist. The manuscripts that do not contain the questionable text also continue the dialogue after Luther’s formal word of dismissal, but Lund argues that there is “no need to allege falsification because of the fact that three of the copyists record one final remark which the others omit” since the copyists were under no obligation to continue recording the discussion.
Lund also criticizes Elert for banking his argument too much on the fact that the disputed text aligns the usus paedogogicus of the Law with the usus politicus. Lund agrees that Melancthon does diverge from Luther by restricting the usus paedigogicus to the usus politicus, but argues that Luther himself associates the two on occasion.
Lund does admit that the disputed text seems out of place in the disputation and that a reference to “exercise in obedience” is out of character for Luther. Nevertheless, Lund postulates that Luther borrowed from Melancthon’s Loci Communes of 1535, a possibility he points out Ebeling and Elert never consider. Whereas H. Fagerberg argues that differences between Luther and Melancthon over the usus legis possibly existed, though there is “no recorded difference of opinion” between them, Lund highlights the fact that Luther in his Table Talk praises Melancthon’s treatment of the Law in the later 1530s.
The controversy involving this disputed text is complicated but critical. If Luther was indeed the author of these words, the debate surrounding the “third use of the Law” in Luther would appear to be finally settled, at least with regard to his theology of the later 1530s. However, since none of these manuscripts can be dated earlier than 1553, and due to the fact that the earliest extant manuscript does not contain the text in any form and it is missing from six of the nine manuscripts, it would be difficult to ever build a case alone on such a questionable text. For now, it seems safe to conclude that Luther never formally referred to a “third use of the Law.” That does not automatically mean, however, that the substance of a “third use” cannot be discerned in his theology. For example, Helmut Thielicke acknowledges that the disputed text is not found in the most reliable manuscripts, but he argues that it is not necessarily in conflict with Luther’s theological intentions. He believes Elert’s accusation of the text as a “blatant falsification” is an exaggeration based on faulty assumptions and that other texts of Luther besides this one can be shown to infer a “third use of the Law.”
Ragnar Bring has been very influential in providing theological objections to a “third use of the Law” in Luther on the basis of its lack of coherence with the general tone of his thought. While he admits that certain isolated statements of Luther could in fact be interpreted in agreement with a “third use of the Law,” these interpretations contradict Luther’s basic presuppositions. According to Bring, the “third use of the Law” upsets Luther’s dialectic of Law and Gospel and imposes upon him definitions and meanings that are foreign to his thinking.
Furthermore, Bring argues that by its very definition a “third use” must be unique to the life of the believer as “new man.” To say that the “first” and “second uses of the Law” continue to apply to the “regenerate” (pii) in a way that is distinct from the “unregenerate” (impii) does not even constitute a “third use.” According to Bring, the Christian as “new Man” needs no such Law to govern his conduct because he is ruled inwardly by the Spirit of Christ through love and obeys the Law freely without any need of command, instruction, or coercion. Bring does acknowledge that the Law is still needed for the Christian with regard to the flesh, but the enduring task of the Law with regard to its first and second uses is not a “third use.”
Lauri Haikola similarly objects to a “third use” in Luther, for the simple reason that Luther always objects to the Law as having any positive function with regard to Christian obedience. The Law demands obedience but provides no “strength” necessary for doing good works. The Christian as “new man” is not ruled by the Law, but rather becomes its master. In Christ, the Christian rules over the Law and has the authority to challenge it if for some reason it conflicts with showing love to others. Love guides the believer in every situation and by its very free nature is prohibited from ever becoming bound to a fixed form. Each new situation presents the Christian with a fresh way to respond in love. However, Haikola points out that experience does show a certain degree of universality in the way love is applied, and this is how Luther can affirm the usefulness of the Ten Commandments. Yet the new obedience of the Christian motivated by love extends above and beyond the minimum requirements of the Law. A “third use of the Law,” then, is incompatible with Luther’s thought on the basis that it circumscribes the freedom of love. Haikola only allows for one to speak of a “third use” in Luther when this applies to Christian vocation and civic service.
Gerhard O. Forde personally objects to a “third use” in Luther, since the Law functions for the Christian as a citizen under the old age and not the age to come that has already dawned through faith, but has stated that scholars for the most part now agree that a “third use” in Luther is at most implicit rather than explicit in his writings. Forde and others have made the important observation, however, that the crux of the whole argument centers on how the “third use of the Law” is defined.
Paul Althaus, in his classic work on the theology of Luther, admits that the formal expression of the “third use of the Law” never appears in Luther’s writings, though he suggests it is there “in substance.” According to Althaus, Luther indeed understands the Christian to be a new creature free from the Law with regard to justification and the gift of the Spirit, but there is still a sense in which the Christian in the flesh needs both the continuing, though mitigated, theological use of the Law to reveal sins and, depending upon the level of the increase of the Spirit, the positive ethical imperatives of the Bible to guide him in good works. However, Althaus prefers to describe the ethics of the New Testament as apostolic “commands” and imperatives of the Gospel rather than “law” to distinguish the positive instruction in good works from the negative work of revealing sins, though he admits that the New Testament exhortations fall under Luther’s more general definition of “Law” and are in agreement with the Ten Commandments. Althaus also makes the distinction between “commands” (“Gebot”) and “Law” (“Gesetz”) in his work The Divine Command. He observes that the justified Christian is free from the condemnation and coercive nature of the Law, but is nevertheless expected to abide by the evangelical “commands” implicative of the Gospel. Thus, whereas “Law” is more negatively associated with revealing sins in both the condemned and the justified, the “command” is positive and affectionately instructs the Christian with regard to the doing of good works. However, Althaus admits again that Luther himself never makes such a formal distinction between “command” and “law.”72
Wilfried Joest asks whether or not Luther’s emphasis on evangelical freedom leaves room for “an exhortational office of the Law” that agrees with the “sense” of a “third use of the Law.” According to Joest, “Law” in Luther is not equivalent to any abstract notion of the will of God or to specific ethical commandments, but rather is defined existentially according to the experience of guilt. “Law” lays the burden of salvation on the human person, and “Gospel” unconditionally declares that salvation to have been accomplished by Christ.74 Joest argues, however, that “Luther knew a command that—only truly in with, and under the Gospel—gives concrete directives, and an obedience of faith that is united to the freedom of faith.” These commands do not confront the believer in the same manner that Law confronts the unbeliever. As a result of being saved it says “you can, because” rather than “you must.” According to Joest, Luther’s emphasis on evangelical freedom does not absolve the need for commandment, but rather provides liberation to obey without the fear or burden of having to merit salvation. Rather than looking for an implicit “third use” in Luther, since this disturbs the purity of the Law-Gospel dialectic, Joest argues instead for a “practical use of the Gospel” (usus practicus evangelii) that applies to the Christian with regard to his or her freedom and not in the character of condemning Law.
Similarly, according to Otto Pesch, “a third use of the Law” is “unlutherisch” if it is assumed that the Law inhibits or diminishes Christian freedom. Yet Pesch, like Joest, agrees that Luther still reserved a place for Biblical “directives” and “exhortations” to guide the Christian life, though these are in complete harmony with the nature of Christian freedom.
Ole Modalsi agrees that the “evangelical” or “Gospel exhortations” are heartily embraced by the Christian with regard to his or her faith, but emphasizes the duality of the Christian as simul justus et peccator and points out that these exhortations are “required” for the believer on account of the “old man.” In one sense then, the commandments of God are welcomed by the Christian much as they were by Adam in the innocence of paradise, as “a friendly admonition,” but at the very same time the Christian as “old man” continues to encounter them as “driving and damning Law.” Even the accusing force of the Law persists in the conscience of the Christian throughout his or her earthly life, although this is to be overcome by the consistent comfort provided in the Gospel.80 According to Modalsi, Luther’s doctrine of a duplex usus legis should not be misinterpreted as dismissing the reality of a “use of evangelical [or Gospel] precepts” (usus evangelicus praecepti) and that Luther’s emphasis on the obedience of faith is actually consistent with the sense of a “third use.” Furthermore, since the obedience of faith surpasses that of the unbeliever’s outward obedience to the Law, this could also suggest a “third use of the Law.” Yet Modalsi contends that Luther never used “lex,” but rather “praeceptum,” when speaking of the obedience of faith. Therefore, he suggests that it is more accurate to speak of a “third use of precepts” (tertius usus praeceptum) rather than a “third use of the Law.”
Much of the work that argues for an implicit “third use of the Law” in Luther has focused on his Small and Large Catechism, particularly his exposition of the Ten Commandments. Eugene Klug is one scholar who considers it surprising that “in spite of Luther’s clear support of the concept of the third use of the Law there is a strange opposition on the part of many ranking Luther scholars to the idea that he taught it or supported it.” In his report on the Fifth International Congress for Luther Research (1993), Klug described a “strange, really antinomian opposition” on the part of many delegates to the idea of a “third use” in Luther. According to Klug, “Luther is so explicit in upholding the concept of the Law’s special use for the Christian as a guide and norm for godly living,” and that “Brilliantly plain is his use of the concept in his catechisms and the Galatians commentary.” Klug argues that Luther’s teaching on the “third use” is thoroughly consistent with the Lutheran confessions, including the Formula of Concord. Contrary to the opinion of scholars such as Elert who believe that Melancthon and later theologians polluted Lutheranism with works-righteousness, legalism, and moralism, “he [Elert] closes his eyes arbitrarily against the voluminous evidence in Luther’s writings in support of the third use of the law.” Although the Christian as “new man” theoretically requires no commandment, the Law is still needed as a guide because of the “continued presence of the old man.”
David P. Scaer has published widely on Lutheran theology, particularly as it relates to the theme of sanctification and the Law. He affirms that sanctification in Lutheranism comes not from the Law but from faith and that the Law in its condemning, threatening, and coercive function can never produce truly good works. The Law is simply the embodiment of what faith does naturally. However, like Klug, Scaer sees in Luther’s exposition of the Ten Commandments a description of what would only later be more formally termed the “third use of the Law.” Scaer argues that Luther’s positive augmentation of the negative prohibitions of the Decalogue suggests that the Law has a function in the life of the Christian qua Christian other than that of prohibition and threat.
Other scholars who agree that a “third use of the Law” is at least implicit in the theology of Luther include H. H. Kramm, Jeffrey K. Mann,88 and Armin W. Schuetze. In his essay, Schuetze attempts to demonstrate the substantial agreement of Luther with the Formula of Concord and asserts that Luther simply neglected to number the Law’s continuing function in the life of the believer as a “third use.” Walter H. Wagner answers “an unequivocal but non-Calvinist ‘yes’ ” to the question of a “third use” in Luther and contends that more attention should be given to the catechisms as Luther himself would have desired.90 This point has been challenged, however, by Bernard Lohse, who argues that Luther never taught a “third use of the Law” even in the catechisms, but only an implicit “pedagogical use.”
More recently, Jeffery Silcock has argued in an unpublished dissertation that to impose a “third use of the Law” on Luther fails to do justice to his teaching that the “usus legis” always functions in the life of the Christian insofar as he or she is still a sinner. Silcock argues that it is best to speak of “faith’s use of the law” rather than even an implicit “third use.” Similar to Bring, Silcock argues that whenever Luther speaks of the Law in any normative sense, this more accurately refers to an enduring “usus theologicus” rather than a new and independent “third use.” The Law always confronts the Christian existentially with sin and never merely as a neutral commandment, although this was also certainly true for Melancthon. According to Silcock, the Law acts “in service to the Gospel” and guides the Christian in good works against the deceptions of the flesh. Yet the Law does this only by arousing Christians to battle against the flesh by reminding them of their sins so that good works can be performed freely through the gracious indwelling of Christ through faith. The Law then becomes a servant of the Christian, which allows Luther to speak of creating “new decalogues.”94 Like Althaus and Joest, Silcock acknowledges a distinction in Luther between the harsh preaching of the Law and the preaching of “paranesis,” or “gospel imperatives,” which are more like gentle coaxes and invitations. While Silcock praises Joest’s “laudable attempt to explain the evangelical character of the law” by identifying a usus practicus evangelii rather than a “third use of the Law,” Silcock points out that even the preaching of “paranesis” acts like Law and thus leads the Christian back to the Gospel so that good works may come freely and spontaneously from faith. On this account, Silcock suggests an “evangelical use of the law,” or “faith’s use of the law,” even though, technically speaking, the Law really ceases to be “Law” when made a servant of faith and the Gospel.
The issue of the “third use of the Law” in Luther’s theology has become somewhat of a tired, though still unsettled, debate. Two recent interpretations of the theology of Luther by leading scholars do not even explicitly address the dispute. The lines have been drawn between those who essentially deny it, those who argue for its substantial but implicit presence, and those who fall somewhere in between but who prefer to name it something else. In some sense the debate is really a moot point when considering that the formal development of the “usus legis” in Lutheranism really postdated the major works of the English evangelical reformers. However, the issue of what the “third use of the Law” essentially means and whether or not it can be found in Luther is an important one because it asks whether or not Luther emphasized a positive role for the Law with regard to the life of good works and Christian obedience. This point is the hinge on which much previous scholarship on the early English evangelicals has turned in its identification of a significant contrast with the theology of Luther.
Whiting, M. S. (2010). Luther in English: The Influence of His Theology of Law and Gospel on Early English Evangelicals (1525–35). (K. C. Hanson, C. M. Collier, & D. C. Spinks, Hrsg.) (S. 17–40). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.