Saturday, February 6, 2010

Is the gospel a promise or imperative or proposition?

More on Hinlicky.

Hinlicky attacks Oswald Bayer.  Bayer claims that in considering the promise of the gospel one must be careful to follow two rules.  In this, Bayer believes he is following Luther and considers these rules at the heart of his Reformation breakthrough.  

Regarding the promise of the gospel, one must not turn the promise into an imperative.  The gospel is not a commandment, it does not tell you to do anything.  Secondly, the gospel is not a proposition.  Hinlicky, dismisses these claims by stating 1. That there is such a thing that is an "Evangelical imperative."  Paul says that his congregations should live a new life because of what Christ has done.  This is not the law, but rather the gospel- the second use of the gospel, rather than a third use of the law.  Here he takes a page from Werner Elert who rejected the third use of the law in his book The Christian Ethos and essentially replaced it with the category of "Evangelical imperatives."  This category apparently involves fun and happy law that doesn't demand, but invites.  So, in other words, law that isn't law!  Secondly, regarding the propositional content, Bayer doesn't want to ground belief in the promise by a speculative knowledge of the promissory agent.  Clearly though, Hinlicky says, we must know who the promissory agent is- namely, Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.

Some thoughts.

First, I don't know how a person can be thought to be a Lutheran theologian and think that the promise of the gospel is translatable into a imperative.  I mean, imperatives are fine and good, they are the law.  Law has its threefold function in the Christian life.  That's good.  But the gospel is purely a promise.  I don't get where Hinlicky wants to go with this.  If we start talking about "Evangelical imperatives" then we go down the road that either mixes law with gospel or on the other hand, kid ourselves about whether or not demand is law.  Demand or imperative (as gentle as it may be) is always a threat and an accusation.  Let's just be honest about that!

Secondly, Hinlicky's second criticism is a little bit more on target.  But I still don't think he's getting what Bayer is driving at.  On one level, one could say that what Bayer is saying is false.  Obviously the promise of the gospel is about someone, Jesus Christ and his relationship to me which he has established by his cross and empty tomb.  These things are propositionally true.  Even if you existentialize these things, the promise given to me really expresses something propositionally true.  So, on this level, Bayer would be wrong.

Nevertheless, I think Hinlicky is missing the point and I don't think that what Bayer means by propositional content is merely that there is propositional content to the promise of the gospel.  Rather, Bayer's point is that the Word of the gospel cannot be translated into a generally true proposition about God secured ahead of time.  The gospel is always "pro me." Here, Hinlicky acknowledges Bayer's concern as being valid, but then doesn't pursue Bayer's concern to its logical conclusion. 

What would this be?

As I read him, Bayer is reacting against the Barthian tendency of using analogy to make the gospel in a stepping stone into God's hidden majesty.  In other words, Barth finds that the Word of the gospel is universal and therefore concludes that everyone is elect and that there is no God of wrath or a hidden God.  There is a transcending of all of God's temporal activity, which is in actuality divided between wrath and grace, and a collapsing of the divine will into a will of grace.

As Gerhard Forde points out in The Law-Gospel Debate, this more or less secures God's hidden being "pro me" above the his Word of promise prior to the event of proclamation.  In other words, through analogy, it secures the generally true proposition for me that God in general is "gracious."

In terms of the activity of proclamation, this has the practical effect making the gospel into a law.  For Barth, the main point is law.  God has elected us in Jesus, therefore we should act like it and correspond to his grace.  In proclamation, there is no breaking through the relationship of wrath and hiddenness to establish the word of the gospel "pro me" as with Luther.  We are simply informed of what God is in general (love) and then told to conform it (i.e. by obeying the law).  The preaching of the gospel doesn't change our relationship to God in any way.  We're just told what the situation is and then what we have to do because of it.

Luther with his doctrine of deus absconditus and the division of divine agency is the inexplicable paradox of law and gospel, refuses any such synthesis.  The word of the gospel then is said "pro me" and does not transcend the conflicts in divine agency, thereby giving us a transparent vision of the inner divine life.  For this reason, the gospel cannot be a proposition about God's being in general.  In this sense, Bayer is correct.  What gospel tells me is about God's activity of toward me- it does not tell me a propositional truth about God's being in general.  If it did, it would not be the gospel as a promise about God's grace towards me, it would be a general statement about God.  A general statement about God would have the existential effect of bidding me to conform to the general reality of God- in other words, it would be more law.  It would not be the event of God giving himself to me in the form of promise.  It would be a new demand.


  1. "Regarding the promise of the gospel, one must not turn the promise into an imperative. The gospel is not a commandment, it does not tell you to do anything."

    I'm confused. Hasn't the Gospel been Scripturally expressed in the form of an imperative (e.g. Matthew 11, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.")?

  2. It's not an imperative as a commandment. It's a promissory invitation. An invitation is not properly speaking an imperative.

  3. Yet this invitation is in the form of "repent" and "believe." Traditionally these have been termed Gospel imperatives. Yes they are an invitation like telling a starving man sit and eat. Unlike legal imperatives the Gospel command to believe works the very thing demanded that is faith.

  4. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”

    This is not Gospel, this is still law. The Gospel always gives and bestows. “Take drink… for the forgiveness of your sins”. That’s really still Law, eaten and received that’s the Gospel part. We can “do” law in earthly kingdom. I.e. I can walk over to church and be baptized. I have a “free will” here. This is what Luther meant that we have a free will such as it is in that which is “below”, but not that which is above. I cannot trust God’s forgiveness of my own free will or choice, it has to be given to me. The faith is connected and packed in with the Gospel received.

    Look at it another way. The sins of the world are forgiven without exception, this we know from the Cross. But not everyone goes to heaven based on that. Why? Because But the reception of the gift is not done until one receives baptism and continued in the Lord’s Supper.

    “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” This is the essence of the 3rd commandment (i.e. Law). How? Look at Luther’s small catechism; “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”. What does this (law/commandment) mean? “We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.” The third commandment, Law, says that we should not despise preaching of the Word (and sacrament) but gladly come to it (i.e. Law). But in Word and Sacrament, when we come to it and arrive, we then receive. What? The Gospel? The forgiveness of sins, pure passive reception. Thus, we have “free will” to do those things beneath us, I can walk to church and come into the presence of the Word speaking. I don’t have free will for those things above, to trust that God is gracious…this I must receive.

    It’s not a Gospel imperative, its pure Law. This is why Luther could at times actually see the Gospel in what we normally call the Law, e.g. first commandment. Remember the Law drives us to Christ and “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” is doing just that.