Book Review: The Necessary Distinction


The Necessary Distinction: A Continuing Conversation on Law and Gospel. Edited by Albert B. Colver III, James Arne Nestingen, and John T. Pless. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017. Click Here

Most pastors are bibliophiles but also busy and so can appreciate the clever (if a bit macabre) Internet meme that says, “I’ll probably die next to a stack of books I was meaning to read.” Don’t let this book stay on that stack. As the fruit of “ongoing discussions” (p. 9) among pastors and theologians from three Lutheran church bodies, The Necessary Distinction means to be the first course of its subtitle: a continuing conversation.

And what a delicious conversation. The prose is often sparkling and witty and always engaging and erudite. Books of theological essays by different authors are sometimes like music albums before the age of iTunes: one or two big hits while the rest of the content is mostly bland stuff meant to merely take up space. Every essay in The Necessary Distinction is on point and worth the reader’s time.

The book begins with an LCMS perspective on Law and Gospel—from Walther’s evening lectures for seminary students to recent publications and controversies—and then moves to an overview of the distinction of Law and Gospel. Mark Seifrid’s general summation of the topic belongs right where it is, at the start of the book. It is an excellent and succinct introduction and will make a great resource for adult catechesis. At a recent theological seminar on preaching, the topic of pastors teaching (or neglecting to teach) laypeople how to listen to sermons was discussed.  Seifrid’s little essay on the distinction of Law and Gospel is the perfect tool for such an ear-training task.

The next few essays are examples of a metaphor a dear professor and mentor regularly used to describe good practical theology: “Practical theology,” he said, “is just systematics, exegesis, and historical theology wearing out a pair of cowboy boots in the parish.” The authors ask and answer how Law and Gospel do their killing and resurrecting work in the liturgy, in pastoral care, in the Christian Life, and in the pastor’s calling. “It is no exaggeration to say that the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is the native air in which Lutheran pastors live, move, and have their being” (p. 109). What does it look like when Law and Gospel wear out boots at the altar, walking down the corridor of the oncology ward, on visits to the homes and workplaces of parishioners? “This vocation is crucial and not to be compromised—it delivers in specific and concrete ways God’s actually dealing with sinners” (p. 133).

After an excellent overview of Luther’s Lectures on Galatians, much of the rest of the book deals with controversies old and new surrounding the distinction of Law and Gospel—with two essays dedicated specifically to the third use of the Law. The most vivid and arresting of all the essays is Steven Paulson’s: “A Royal Ass” (even the title gets one’s attention). Paulson’s wordsmithery approaches wizardry and delights as it guides the reader on a tour of Luther’s jocular schooling of Erasmus on Psalm 73, “free will,” and Law and Gospel. A taste:

But the real question is not whether you are in fact an ass or not but precisely what kind of ass, since there is not one species, but two. Which kind of ass you are makes all the difference in the world . . . To be very precise, we learn that we are two asses at once, which is called the simul. But before anyone attempts to investigate himself to find evidence of the kind of ass he is, he must learn to look away from himself to the external matter of lordship. The kind of ass you are depends not upon any choice you ever have made or ever will make, and requires no “consent” of a “free” will, but depends entirely on who is your lord, who is precisely the one who rides you. You are an ass ridden by your Lord (p. 268).

In 2017, five-hundred years after the beginning of the Reformation, theological debates are no longer initiated by inky paper nailed to church doors. Now the theological jousting and chatter largely occur on the Internet—with all it’s blessings and curses. Too much of the “light” emitted therein is from the burning of straw men. In such a dispiriting atmosphere, The Necessary Distinction is so very welcome.

This volume offers a wealth of thoroughly researched, well-crafted reflections that shine edifying light on the distinction between Law and Gospel. Take up, and read.

The Rev. Karl Hollibaugh
St. James Lutheran
Gonzales, Louisiana

A Response to Woodford


— by Mark Surburg

Editor's note: This article is a response to Rev. Lucas V. Woodford. The original article is linked in the first paragraph.

Last week LOGIA Online posted an article by Pastor Lucas Woodford entitled “Third Use of the Law and Sanctification.” He offered a descriptive analysis of a “debate going among conservative confessional Lutheran circles regarding the nature and use of the Law, particularly its Third Use, as well as the issue of antinomianism and the sanctified life under the Gospel.” He noted in conclusion:

Again, my aim has been to shed some collegial and pastoral light upon this ongoing             debate. I mean no ill will, nor do I mean to antagonize or demonize anyone or any one     position. If I have misspoken, I am open to correction and clarification. 

While I appreciate the descriptive tone of his effort, I believe that Woodford has failed to understand key issues that are at stake. After engaging in this discussion for the last four years and coining the term “soft antinomianism” in describing what I have encountered, I believe that I am in a good position to respond to Pastor Woodford on behalf of the second group he describes. Following Woodford’s lead, I will pursue a descriptive course rather than providing specific argumentation in support of a position.

In Woodford’s estimation the two sides are each defending some specific theological truth, but in so doing they are also excluding “a corollary and very important truth” as they each fall off one side of Luther’s horse. Woodford describes the first group in the following manner:

For example, one group appears to be aiming to reach disaffected evangelicals who have     been repeatedly bludgeoned by the law. They want to “liberate” them from the bonds of   the law and teach them how to “hold fast” to Christ and the “radical” freedom the Gospel     affords. Thus, they begin to speak in terms of limited categories.

He adds latter:

Though perhaps well intentioned, and maybe having a particular disaffected evangelical       audience in mind, this tends to seem like a repetitious single note being played over and over again, and is often aided by the sensationalism of digital media, and corresponding       bumper sticker-like slogans, complete with all kinds of catchy sound bites. It may be well     received by the specific audience they desire to hear it, but the legs seem to be falling off   the saddle for the rest of us.

While this description is an entirely accurate one of several prominent groups online and in social media, Woodford has focused too narrowly. Instead, this approach that sees only the accusing role of the law in revealing sin and emphasizes salvation by grace through faith in Christ apart from works is symptomatic of a far deeper problem in modern Lutheranism. It does not simply describe a small group seeking to reach out to disaffected former evangelicals. Instead it includes many Lutherans today and the debate that has gone on for the last four years has focused on how Lutheran pastors talk to Lutheran congregations.

The denial of the third use of the law that emerged after World War II (associated chiefly with Werner Elert, but involving others as well) has created an enduring theological outlook in which the law only delivers sin-revealing accusation, while the Gospel frees us from this apart from works. With the law limited in this way, the abundant New Testament paraenesis (exhortation to live a God-pleasing life in response to the Gospel) becomes intelligible only as more accusation intended to reveal sin. Lutheranism loses the ability to speak to Christians about living as Christians in the way of the New Testament and Luther’s postils (sermons), because this is viewed as just more accusing and condemning law.

When we turn to the second group Woodford describes, which I represent, I must confess that I am genuinely puzzled by his description. He focuses on “progressive sanctification” and uses this term to describe instances where “this position has a tendency to set forth quotes from the confessions that assert an increase in sanctification.” This becomes the centerpiece of his presentation as he critiques problems with the position and tells us, “However, the term ‘progressive sanctification’ is not in the Lutheran confessions.”

I am puzzled because I don’t know of anyone who uses the term “progressive sanctification” nor anyone who places the central emphasis on the need to see an ongoing increase in sanctification. Woodford has imported this concern and in doing so has missed the reason that I and others have cited biblical and confessional texts that speak of increase: it is because they substantiate the fact that according to Scripture and the Confessions, the work of the Holy Spirit actually makes a difference in the individual.

The position I represent has three basic points about which it is concerned. The first point is about what the Gospel really means. The Gospel does not provide merely a forensic declaration of change in status before God that leaves individuals basically unchanged in relation to how they live. Instead, the Gospel provides a forensic declaration of change in status before God, while the Holy Spirit also creates the new man who through the work of the Spirit is now able to live in ways that reflect God’s will (something the Confessions call “cooperation”).

The second point is that when we understand how the Sprit creates, sustains, and enables the new man through the Means of Grace, then we can understand how the Confessions teach about the third use. The law always accuses, but it doesn’t always do one thing as it accuses. God uses the law as it accuses to reveal sin (second use). He also uses the law as it accuses the old man to guide, teach, compel, and repress (third use).

In the third use the Spirit uses the Law so that the actual behavior of the Christian reflects God’s will. It is the Spirit who always supports the new man through the Gospel so that he can struggle against the old man (the Spirit is the source of any God-pleasing life). It is the new man who struggles against the old man. The Spirit applies the Law in its third use to the old man and the Spirit's use of the law to guide and repress the old man aids the new man in his struggle so that the new man determines what the individual actually does. In this way it is entirely correct to say that the Law helps the Christian live according to God’s will. To be clear, this is different from a Calvinistic view where the law itself is the means of producing obedience in the Christian.

The third point is that when we understand that God can use the law in this way, we are free to speak in the language of Scripture by exhorting and encouraging Christians in how they should live. Certainly we can’t determine how the Spirit will use the law. St. Paul couldn’t either. But we can be certain that the Spirit does use the law in this way and so we can follow the inspired model of Paul and the other biblical writers. Robust preaching of the Gospel present for the believer in the Means of Grace is complemented by robust exhortation, encouragement, and teaching about what it means for how they live. This is what one finds in Luther’s postils as well.

These three points are absent from the first group that Woodford describes (there is a range within this group and while most would not explicitly deny the first point, whether this happens functionally in their theology is a different matter). In addition, when he sets forth his “third perspective” that sanctification “is the result of Christ and his Spirit in action in the life of the believer,” he seems unaware that he has not in any way addressed these concerns. I presume he would affirm the first point. But what does his position have to say about the second and third? This is the real issue at hand. From what I have seen, since the idea of sanctification being “Christ in action” became widely discussed in the early 1990’s, it has generally had a very poor record on this. But perhaps Pastor Woodford deploys it in a new way.

I hope this is helpful in explaining why Pastor Woodford’s piece has for the most part failed to address the composition of the first group, and how his focus on “progressive sanctification” has not described the second group, which I represent. Hopefully it will also aid him and others in explaining how a “Christ in action” view deals with the concerns I have listed.

The Rev. Mark P. Surburg serves Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Marion, IL and has published articles in the Concordia Journal, Concordia Theological Quarterly, and the American Lutheran Theological Journal.

As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.

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.