God's Two Words

Law and Gospel in the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions

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Jonathan Linebaugh
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , August
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Power politics certainly played a role in the Reformation of the Christian church. However, to reduce the dramatic changes of church and state in the 16th and 17th centuries to merely secular ideology would be historically dishonest. For both the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, the authority of the Christian Scriptures are placed above all others. Therefore, both traditions place great emphasis on correctly understanding these texts, which are the foundation of their belief and practice. These convictions are alive and well in this fine volume edited by Cambridge scholar Jonathan Linebaugh. I will first offer an overview of the major issues discussed and then concludes with a few critiques. 

God’s Two Words: Law and Gospel in the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions is a collection of essays first presented at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama in July 2016. As a Reformed pastor and theologian, I was interested to “take up and read” this volume. (The reader should note that I write as one formed in the Reformed tradition, and while I seek to be fair in this review, my bias is inevitable.) Historically, Lutheran and Reformed churches share much. Yet, the traditions also have their distinctive shape and disagree at points. Perhaps the place where the Reformed and Lutheran agree and disagree the most is over how to understand the law/gospel dynamic in the Christian Scriptures. This book unfolds why this is the point of great agreement, but also great disagreement. 

Linebaugh gathered five Lutheran and five Reformed theologians to discuss each tradition’s understanding of the law, gospel, and the implications for ministry given each tradition’s hermeneutic. Lutheran and Reformed both agree on the gracious nature of salvation and in justification by faith alone.Both agree that the law convicts one of their sin and guilt, and drives them to the grace of God found in Jesus Christ. The first two chapters discuss these matters from a Lutheran and Reformed perspective. However, at this point the disagreement emerges as well. 

These concerns continue into the next two chapters, presenting each traditions’s understanding of the gospel. Lutheran theologians tend to make a sharp distinction between the law and the gospel. Anything that convicts and condemns is law and the promises that lead one to believe in Jesus Christ is the gospel. Therefore, Lutherans make much of the promises that lead one to seek faith, or to seek Jesus Christ and the grace he offers (see Charles P. Arand’s chapter). However, for Lutherans, much of their theology of law and gospel is driven by their anthropology. This raises one of the most important distinction between the two traditions. Lutheran theological reflection tends to start with a guilty humanity, whereas Reformed theologians (at least historically) begin with God and his glory.

One accusation against the Reformed tradition—made in this volume by Steven Paulson—is that the Reformed turn God himself into an eternal law. Yet, as Michael Allen and Scott Swain show in their chapters, and Linebaugh himself points out in the introduction, this is to misunderstand the Reformed use of covenant theology. Reformed theologians historically hold to a version of the law/gospel dynamic, but this dynamic is always in the context of God’s covenants. God relates to the world—he condescends as Calvin says—through means of covenants. Therefore, to understand how the Reformed tradition formulates it’s understanding of this dynamic, one must be familiar with the covenant of works and covenant of grace. All of this informs ministry and practice. Paulson is greatly concerned that the gospel is turned into law if the Lutheran hermeneutic is not followed. Yet, behind Paulson’s concern is a disagreement between the traditions on the third use of the law. Both agree on what is historically called the “second use of the law,” the use that convicts one of sin. However, historically, the Reformed tradition has also emphasized the ongoing use of the law to inform how the Christian is to live. Kelly Kapic, a Reformed theologian, writes a helpful chapter that challenges not just his Lutheran interlocutors, but many in his own tradition as well. The book ends with several thought-provoking responses to the first three parts of the book. 

This collection of essays is well worth one’s time. However, there are a few issues of which the reader should be aware. Firstly, the terms “Lutheran” and “Reformed” are never explicitly defined. Furthermore, the key terms “law” and “gospel” are defined, but not consistently throughout. Perhaps this is expected given the genesis of the book, but it seems especially true of the Lutheran authors. Also, one major point of critique is that the editors of this work seem to be engaging in two different debates. The first half of the book presents essays that approach the topic from the Reformation itself—the discussions of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon with the Reformed tradition on both the Continent (Heidelberg Catechism), and the British Isles (Westminster Standards).  

At the same time, another debate—that between Reformed theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran theologian Werner Elert. Of course, these two discussion are not isolated from one another as they occur within each of the traditions. Katherine Sonderegger’s chapter, while focusing on Barth and Elert, helps to bring both discussions together. Writing as a Reformed theologian, she has great appreciation for the Lutheran Christological focus (and, I would argue, anthropological focus), but again highlights the priority of God in himself and his glory. 

Any negative critique I have of this book is quite small. This is the case, given that what one finds in this collection of essays is a model for theological dialogue, as well as a reminder that Christian traditions are not monolithic, but formed in the real context of history, by real people who see things slightly differently. Pastors, theologians, and students in both traditions will benefit from reading this volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Jason Pickard is a doctoral candidate at the University of Otago and a Reformed pastor.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan A. Linebaugh is Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Cambridge and fellow at Jesus College.


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