graphic website title banner

The inescapability of the law

by Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion, South Dakota State University, Brookings, S.D.)

December 10, 2004

“Grace,” the speaker said, “Let us preach grace. The world already has enough law.” I listened quietly, but had heard it all before. The assumption behind the comment is easily seen: People have a problem with self-image, and preaching the law merely exacerbates that problem. “Give them some grace already,” shouts the caring soul. “Tell them God loves them so that their self-images can improve.”

There are some things about which one simply cannot remain silent. I wish to speak today of the age-old issues of law and grace, but with an eye towards a question not often understood by today’s easy purveyors of grace. I claim that the preaching of grace today is semantically discontinuous from the preaching of grace in previous ages, especially the preaching of grace during the time of Reformation. Moreover, this discontinuity has risen chiefly because of the eclipse of the law in current theology.

What do I mean by “semantically discontinuous?” By the phrase I refer to the simple fact that the words of grace are not afforded the same interpretation they once had. Simply put, the words have acquired a different semantic content and are spoken for different purposes than previously. While the syntax of the expressions remains the same, their interpretation has changed. While we say the same words, we mean different things in the saying. In fact, we mean different things even when we are unaware of the difference we mean.

I find it curious that Lutheran crafters of ecumenical agreements (e.g., The Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification) get excited when two or more church bodies can “say the same words,” as if the saying of the same words was either sufficient or necessary for saying the same thing. Logicians know that a series of words is merely a syntactical string prior to an interpretation. Semantics is the study of the meaning and truth of these strings of symbols. No one outside of theological circles seriously imagines that an agreement in strings signals substantive agreement on the propositions expressed by those strings.

What does all this have to do with the preaching of the law? I claim that strings like, “God loves you,” and even, “You are justified by grace through faith on account of Christ,” play upon vastly different semantic fields than they once did. We in the churches have been lulled into thinking that by uttering the same vocables (series of sounds), we are asserting the thing about which they once spoke. Lamentably, this is not the case.

Take the innocuous phrase, “God loves Peter.” What can be prima facie more clear than that the phrase states that there is a supreme being having the relational property of loving Peter. How can this say something different from previous ages?

But it asserts something quite dissimilar. We cannot simply treat “God” and “loves” as terms having fixed meanings through the centuries, especially when they are used together in the phrase, “God loves.” The term “love” when said of God has clearly undergone a semantic shift. (I shall not claim that it can’t be compared with earlier notions, only that is has had a “shifting” of its original meaning.) Consider, for instance, how 16th century Christians understood God’s “love” of them.

For such believers “God’s love” connoted something quite paradoxical and unexpected. Upon the cultural horizon of a very real despair before the righteousness of God, God’s “love” asserted something unanticipated and in considerable tension with the assumed notion of divine righteousness. If God’s righteousness is understood as a justice by which God distributes “likes for likes,” then His righteousness demands human punishment and, in effect, a righteous hatred of the sinner for what he or she has done. Given a context in which the sinner is judged by a just but wrathful God, the claim that God loves the sinner establishes a semantic tension. In and despite divine distance, God approaches the sinner in love. Proximity and distance are thereby juxtaposed. “God loves” says something that goes against one’s original suppositions; “God loves” says something utterly paradoxical.

Now consider what “God’s love” means for most Christians today. Within a horizon of complacency that assumes that an all-good, all-powerful God must act always to maximize human well-being, within a horizon that pre-understands that God is and cannot have wrath towards us because—if God exists—He is responsible for making us the way we are, the phrase “God loves me” becomes a statement utterly devoid of semantic tension. In a horizon that already assumes that God has made us unique and special beings, “God loves me” becomes a statement of support for the divine creative act already done. Over and against the background presupposition that God created me out of love, “God loves me” becomes a validation of that which He has already accomplished.

While in the first case “God loves me” asserts a loving that is semantically discontinuous with my original state—previous generations believed in original sin—the phrase today has become wholly continuous with that state. While in previous ages “God loves me” is a synthetic (unexpected attribute) or ampliative (enlarged but not untrue) judgment proclaiming that the relation of being loved by God surprisingly obtains, today it becomes an analytic (common sense or logical) judgment: “God loves me” is conceptually entailed by the notion of God: God is all-good and all-powerful, and already freely has created the unique being who I am.

The ramifications of this semantic change are apparent. While earlier generations understood “God loves me” as effecting a change in one’s self-understanding before the divine—and consequently a “dis-placement” of human expectation—recent generations know that the phrase merely characterizes the general relation God must have toward His people: It is part of the logic of “God” that He love people—including Peter and me.

What I am saying should not be surprising. We are really dealing with a question that has been around for the last couple of centuries: What can words proclaiming salvation mean to those for whom salvation is not at issue?

Imagine a game of ball where one uses words like “touchdown,” “first and ten,” “incompleted forward pass” and “safety blitz.” What could these words mean when throwing a little white ball near a man with a stick over sixty feet away? Imagine playing for years with the vocabulary of football only to find that one now played on a baseball diamond with batters and pitchers. How would the interpretation of the traditional football vocables change when one had only baseballs, bats, gloves and a baseball field?

The condition for the identity of a theological and/or religious tradition is decidedly not a mere agreement on what vocables can be asserted in what context. It is, rather, an agreement about what propositions expressed by these strings are true. Agreement upon the assertability of strings presupposes a common interpretation. Determining whether WordAlone keeps the historic faith depends finally upon whether or not it can guard the “semantic drift” of the fundamental assertions of Lutheran theology. To do this it must be clear on the preaching of the law. The words of grace can mean (roughly) the same thing only if the words of law mean (roughly) the same thing. Without the preaching of the law, the proclamation of the gospel is conceptually impossible. It has always been this way: The law is necessary, but not sufficient, for the gospel.