Book Review: Lex Aeterna

Lex Aeterna: A Defense of the Orthodox Lutheran Doctrine of God’s Law and Critique of Gerhard Forde. By Jordan Cooper Eugene. Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2017. Click here

In Lex Aeterna, Jordan Cooper strives to defend the scholastic view of the eternal law and a positive use of the law. He seeks to do so over against what he perceives to be Gerhard Forde’s view of the law and its place in Christian preaching and the Christian life. Cooper writes well and accessibly. The book has exceptional flow and is clearly organized. Furthermore, Cooper demonstrates a deep concern for getting doctrine right, which is admirable and of course most Christian and Lutheran. Moreover, the reader will recognize early on that Cooper has an obvious familiarity with Lutheran scholasticism. These are great strengths. Unfortunately, the book is not without its weaknesses. This review will focus on weaknesses especially in Cooper’s critique of the theology of Forde.

Before delving into some of the potential pitfalls of the book, I do think it would be helpful to know the audience for which this book is intended. If it is written for the laity, some of the weaknesses addressed in this review are more understandable, as Cooper may not have wanted to bog such readers down in footnotes and, for their benefit, striven to largely summarize Forde as he understood him. If, however, this book is intended for academic consideration and debate—the fact that the first footnote indicates it is a revised “Master’s thesis” seems to indicate that (1)—and for theologically astute clergy and laypeople, the lack of footnotes and the number of assertions made without support hurts its cause, even if a number of his assertions are correct. This is more true of the sections dealing with Forde or non-scholastic theologians, but this issue does manifest itself throughout the book.

A few examples of assertions without support come to mind as emblematic, if not most critical. First, early on Cooper makes comparisons between Forde and Werner Elert and intimates the latter’s influence on the former. Although he concedes that they had differences, which he does not, however, explain, he proceeds without engaging Elert’s thought in any substantive way. He does not cite any of Elert’s works (2). We are left to trust Cooper’s very brief summary of Elert’s theology. He does make reference to Elert’s The Structure of Lutheranism, but Elert wrote very clearly on the matter of law and gospel in several much shorter and more focused works as well, which could have been explored in at least some cursory manner, if he is so important to the story of Forde’s writings as to garner mention on the second page of a critique of them. Cooper’s approach thus undermines his argument, whether or not there is merit to his argument. Moreover, while he feels Elert important enough to mention on the second page of the book, he fails to pick up on or elaborate the importance of Elert vis-à-vis Forde’s theology much beyond this second page.

Chapter Four is perhaps where the problem of citation and demonstration is most evident. Cooper here makes a number of assertions, many, in my opinion, that are in and of themselves worthwhile, but unfortunately fails to amply support them or elaborate upon key terms and concepts. This will leave the unversed above their heads and the well-versed unsatisfied. Quite simply, Cooper needs to demonstrate his familiarity with the actual works of those whose names he throws about and back up his contentions. While in many places I agreed with him, I found myself writing repeatedly in the margins things like, “Define,” “Cite,” “Demonstrate.” This is seen, for instance, with respect to Cooper’s treatment of Bultmann. Cooper argues for strong similarities, while not identicalness, between the thought of Forde and Bultmann, specifically in eschatology (84), as well as a clear neo-orthodox influence upon Forde’s thinking (82). That is fine and good. What he fails to do, though, is meaningfully argue it with sufficient explanation, and from primary sources. Here, for an academic book, he needs to establish connections clearly, with textual backing. Unsubstantiated claims, even when true, undermine arguments. Cooper needs to bring his reader along with him, giving us a ride on his train of thought, including what has informed it.  

Cooper also too often fails to give a proper sense for the secondary sources he utilized to shape his opinions. Even when it seems clear he has a grasp on the general ideas of the matter, there are too many particulars that need substantiation. If he did not comprehensively engage the actual writings of the authors he mentions in connection to Forde, whether as disciples or influences, or at least does not reference them in a way reflective of such a comprehensive approach, he needs at least to show more regarding the secondary sources which shaped and corroborate his opinions. Labels and allegations of error are serious things. They ought not just be tossed about. He needs to justify his use of them and make clear where he got the pieces he put together to form the framework of his theses.

Less seriously, but illustrative of Cooper’s failure to show his work (here, once again, I am not claiming he did no work, but rather that he has fallen short of the academic’s responsibility to provide evidence of it), when trying to argue for a Kantian influence upon Forde—which, once again, is all well and good if he wants to provide a more reasoned, supported, and cited argument for it—he contends that “without Kant, existentialism could likely not exist” (83). While there might be something there, it is thrown out with little explanation and is at best a very generalized simplification. Such generalizations appear too often in Lex Aeterna. In this regard, it should also be noted that Cooper sometimes confuses, or at least causes potential confusion for his readers, between existentialism and an existential experience of a word of God. While Elert, for instance, does approach law and gospel along existential lines, that does not mean that he was an existentialist in the sense of existentialism, the belief that existence precedes essence, or in a way similar to the way Heidegger or Sartre or even Kierkegaard were existentialists (2). This might seem minor, but it becomes even more problematic when we remember that this factors rather prominently into his evaluation of Forde’s thought.

Cooper largely operates in his critique on the basis of his reading of two of Forde’s writings, which he describes as definitional (9). This would be understandable, if he made a clear case for why they are definitional. He fails to do so, though. We are left to take his word for it and wondering to what extent he immersed himself in and is conversant with the rest of Forde’s corpus. Of the two works Cooper declares definitional, one is a revision of Forde’s dissertation (The Law-Gospel Debate). I do not know any scholar who would want to be judged largely upon his or her dissertation. Moreover, this approach fails to take into consideration development in Forde’s thought. With respect to the second critical work in Cooper’s mind (Where God Meets Man), he fails to prove sufficiently that it encapsulates Forde’s thought in a manner that justifies (let alone sanctifies) Cooper writing a critique largely upon the basis of it and one other work. If these works are definitional, it needs to be demonstrated why they can stand alone apart from any significant treatment of his other writings. Moreover, these writings, if they provide the backbone of his arguments, need to be contextualized. With regard to Where God Meets Man, Cooper devotes less than two pages to its background, scope, and purpose, and two footnotes in his summary of it. If we are to trust his take on these works, we should be given adequate information about them and from them.

Ultimately, it is impossible to declare any author’s works definitional without demonstrating a fluency with the rest of their work. With respect to Forde, this ought not be too difficult, either. Forde wrote a lot, but not too much to work through for a study like this, and his work is certainly navigable. Such investigation surely was not “impossible for this current project,” unless Cooper has in mind his Master’s thesis and not this book (9). I cannot think of any pressing reason the book would have needed to be published posthaste, so that more careful and extensive research was prohibited. If he wanted to track Forde’s intellectual history, he could have wrestled with Forde’s own words about it, for instance, in “One Acted Upon.”[1] Or he could have taken up the thoughts of some of Forde’s longtime colleagues, students, and dear friends about it, such as Nestingen’s essay in the Forde Festschrift, which deals with a lot of the contentions Cooper makes.[2] In short, Cooper cites writings about Forde in unbecoming proportion to writings by Forde. He cites reactions to Forde’s works similarly, even in the parts of the book explicitly devoted to dealing with Forde’s theology. This is not to say he did not consult or reference some of Forde’s other writings. It does mean, though, that he casts a wide net without enough twine.  

Here another problem arises. Given the widespread use Cooper makes of the term “Radical Lutheran” throughout the book, and especially at the end, it would make good sense to have included Forde’s seminal essay, “Radical Lutheranism,” as a third definitional work.[3] If the title of that work serves as definitive for Cooper, it is perplexing that the work itself would not also be definitional. Without having treated it as such, the term “Radical Lutheran” as denotive of a group of pastors or theologians or a broader movement proves troublesome, especially since he casts a wide net with it and leaves its boundaries ill-delineated, with the exception of a rather strange section near the end where he gives several rulings on who is or is not, may be or may not be a “Radical Lutheran,” from respected and very well-established theologians in the LCMS (entirely without evidence) to members of the ELCA (127ff).

While many readers from the churches of the former Synodical Conference, like myself, will sympathize with some of Cooper’s objections to the theology of Gerhard Forde, for instance, with respect to penal substitution, other objections Cooper raises could be undermined in their minds because of a failure to present Forde’s case with a more thoroughgoing engagement with his actual words and a more referenced approach to his corpus. This is critical, because those familiar with Forde’s writings will realize that many of his most important works are not monographs with a single, consistent thread throughout, but rather short treatises tackling very specific matters. Without such information, the skeptical reader is left to wonder whether the book contains a critique of Forde’s theology or of Forde’s theology as Cooper understands it. Cooper, whether deliberately or not, gives the impression that he reads Forde’s essays together as a whole, a totality, and not as individual essays. Forde is not Gerhard, at least not Johann Gerhard. Unlike the great dogmatician, his volumes do not build upon each other systematically. Thus, Cooper seeks a thread where there is not necessarily one to be found. This is not conducive to any meaningful engagement with Forde’s works, and because of it Forde too often seems more a foil, a boogeyman (and do we Lutherans ever love a bogeyman?!), than a theologian being seriously engaged. This is seen, for example, as happens more than once, when he makes reference to something from one of Forde’s essays with only a mention of the title of the book in which the essay could be found (96), not alerting the reader that the book does not stand as a whole, but includes a variety of Forde’s writings, each written in reaction to and in order to address different things.

One more example of academic inadequacy deserves mention here, supposing Cooper is writing for academics (since he is responding to one). Too often Cooper simplifies complex matters. In the introduction, for instance, where, among a slew of assertions, Cooper commends David Scaer for upholding a positive use for the law (without defining what all that entails), he leaves the reader to assume Forde did not do so (3). One need only read Forde’s “Luther’s Ethics” to recognize that the matter is not so simple as Cooper presents it.[4] Cooper might not like where Forde locates a positive use for the law, but that is a different matter. While Scaer and Forde might well, and likely certainly do, disagree on what a positive use of the law is and how it operates, this needs to be addressed and expanded more. Moreover, on the same page, while praising Joel Biermann for espousing two kinds of righteousness, Cooper gives the impression that Forde disavowed law and gospel as good and that he denied a positive use for the law as a guide for righteousness coram mundo. Forde addresses this in his essay “Lex semper accusat?” and specifically acknowledges that we can see a positive use of the law when it has an end [in Christ] and “is intended for this world” as a “civic righteousness.”[5] Forde, like Biermann, clearly recognizes a use of the law as a guide for righteousness coram mundo, then. He certainly does so differently, though, subsumed under the political use and extended beyond believers to all. The law, Forde makes plain, does bring benefits for society through its first use, and this is surely good.[6] Finally, all it would have taken to clear up a good deal of misunderstanding regarding Forde’s view of the commandments in the Christian life would have been to address his book, Free to Be, written with James A. Nestingen, whom Cooper, to Nestingen’s great relief, I am sure, absolves of some of Forde’s alleged sins (127). There Forde certainly shows that in his view the pastor’s task was not as limited as Cooper claims in his conclusion (144) and that he did see a very clear place for the law in Christian instruction and daily life.

Along these lines, Cooper sometimes, certainly unintentionally, conflates, or leaves his readers to conflate, the law always accusing and the law only accusing. He also sometimes fails to make clear that it is the established doctrine of confessional Lutheranism that the law always accuses. He writes of Jack Kilcrease, for example, that “he agrees [with Forde] that the law always accuses” (26). I would certainly hope so, since the Apology teaches this, as I am sure Cooper knows.[7] The problem is the lack of clarity of the statement, what the reader is assumed to know or left to assume.

Finally, Forde certainly did criticize the third use of the law and reject a third use built upon the views of Melanchthon and Calvin, but he did so especially as he had experienced it in pietistic preaching. This, too, needs further explanation, especially since Forde clearly outlines it in “Radical Lutheranism” (6ff). It is impossible to understand Forde without understanding his experience with and aversion to pietism. Forde’s aversion to the third use as expressed by decadent pietism does not mean that he held that the Christian will not serve and love his or her neighbor after having come to faith. Forde explained, “The good person, the one saved, is given creation back again as sheer gift, an arena in which to do the good.”[8] To his credit, Cooper does sometimes come back elsewhere in the book to some of these things in a more thoughtful and sharp manner, but that does not mitigate the fact that there are too many instances where the reader is left hanging and thoughts go underdeveloped and ill-defined. What the Formula of Concord describes as the third use can be found in Forde under the political use of the law and that is indeed where Luther most often included it. This is not an apology for Forde’s teaching on the third use, nor is it an attempt to deny that there are problematic aspects for those from the synods of the former Synodical Conference, but it is to say that it is more nuanced than Cooper presents it.

As noted at the beginning of this review, Cooper has an established interest in Lutheran scholasticism and in this book seeks to evaluate Forde’s writings in the light of it. There are several challenges this presents, though. Three especially come to mind. First, Forde, like Luther, was not a systematic theologian in any Synodical Conference sense. Second, Forde’s theology is especially homiletical in its focus, and so it is rightly centered in justification (whether or not it is weak on sanctification, as some, including Cooper, charge). Third, Forde’s writings often deal over against some threat to the central doctrine of justification. So, first, Cooper faces the temptation to systematize Forde’s writings in order to critique him. In so doing, he sometimes reacts to things not actually expressed in Forde’s theology and analyzes supposed presuppositions and influences which may or may not have actually factored into what Forde wrote. Second, this approach runs the risk of reading something Forde wrote as a reaction as if he were presenting a positive theology, something created in a vacuum, which becomes particularly precarious when dealing with Forde’s essays, such as those included in A More Radical Gospel. Third, Cooper seems to approach Forde with the expressed concern of protecting sanctification, something Forde himself noted people teased him about being weak on. Here we might note that the Confessions themselves could be accused of being weak on sanctification when it comes to the believer’s cooperation in sanctification after conversion, which is done in “great weakness,” and not like two horses pulling a wagon.[9] One must be excessively clear in this regard, therefore. Context is crucial, and this requires comprehensive research and a demonstration of it.

It is important to note as well, as we approach the close of this review, that Forde himself was concerned with antinomianism, a much more dangerous antinomianism.[10] This antinomianism seeks in the law or gives hearers the impression that they can find in it something of which it is not capable. Even more, such antinomianism can leave its hearers with the understanding that the law reflects or effects something that it does not and cannot, namely, one’s status before God as anything other than a sinner. Here I think a weakness in the scholastic approach espoused by Cooper becomes particularly clear. Cooper wants to defend law and gospel, Scripture, God, etc. as each is. He sees it as a weakness that Forde approaches them primarily as they do (88ff.). This is how the Christian comes to know and experiences these things, though—by, through, and in what they do. That is not to deny that there is an are to all of these things, but, functionally, Cooper’s scholasticism is too abstract to preach and not concrete enough to fully confess Christ as a person, flesh and blood, whose incarnation, when it comes to us, was not primarily about being something, but about doing things. Moreover, in this approach Cooper falls more than a little into Milton’s error, striving to justify the ways of God to men.[11] The problem isn’t always what Cooper says, but rather why he seems to feel the need to say it. Scripture, law and gospel, God, all these things do not need our help nearly so much as we fear. Rather, they need to be let out of their cage, and Cooper’s scholasticism sometimes closes the gate much more than it opens it. Christ, as the sinner knows him, will not become more Savior by the chasing of windmills.

Those of us who struggled at mathematics throughout grade school and high school likely remember that we could at least score some points by showing our work. Whether or not Cooper is right or wrong in many of his conclusions, in too many instances he loses points for not showing his work. The reader needs to be taken along on the journey. In Lex Aeterna, Cooper fails to do that. While many might agree with him, they will be left doing so on Cooper’s word or on the basis of previously formed opinions, and thus, through an intellectual veil, dimly. Disagree with Forde or not, any distinguished theologian deserves more and better treatment than what is provided in Lex Aeterna. A good book may create an echo chamber (sad a consequence as that is), but it does not speak to one. There is too much assumed or taken for granted in Cooper’s book to win over those not already convinced of his arguments and just enough to win praise from those itching to catch the next bogeyman.


Wade Johnston
Wisconsin Lutheran College
Milwaukee, WI


[1] Gerhard Forde, “One Acted Upon,” Dialogue 36, no. 1 (Winter, 1997): 54–61.

[2] Nestingen’s essay can be found, among other helpful essays by those who knew Forde and his work well, in By Faith Alone: Essays on Justification in Honor of Gerhard O. Forde, edited by Joseph A. Burgess and Marc Kolden (Grand Rapids Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004).

[3] Gerhard O. Forde, “Radical Lutheranism” in A More Radical Gospel, edited by Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004), 3–16.

[4]   Gerhard O. Forde, “Luther’s Ethics” in A More Radical Gospel, edited by Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004), 154.

[5] Gerhard O. Forde, “Lex semper accusat?” in A More Radical Gospel, edited by Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004), 49.

[6] Forde, “Luther’s Ethics,” 154.

[7] Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV in Kolb and Wengert, 166.

[8] Forde, “Luther’s Ethics,” 149.

[9] Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration II.65 in Kolb and Wengert, 556; Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration II.66 in Kolb and Wengert, 557.  

[10] For example, see Forde, “Radical Lutheranism,” 15ff. To be fair, Cooper does briefly mention Forde’s views on antinomianism and lists two kinds of antinomianism Forde opposed—overt and covert—but in two paragraphs, largely, again, without sufficient engagement with Forde’s own words and extensive citation, and mostly as a springboard. Given that many of the charges Cooper levels are rooted in Forde’s relationship with the law, this seems highly insufficient. Moreover, I think Cooper misses or fails to fully address what Forde sees as some of the very real dangers of such antinomianism, which ultimately makes the law less than the law, a toothless threat, a measuring stick, or a sword too dull to kill. While the term “antinomianism” has historically been used for other threats to true doctrine or proper preaching, that does not mean that Forde is not correct in his diagnoses of some abuses or misunderstandings of the law in his day and ours.

[11] John Milton, Paradise Lost, I.25–26.