Thursday, October 27, 2011

My Critique of Forde on Justification and Atonement: Part II (This time with the footnotes!!)

Moving beyond issues directly pertaining to atonement and justification, a second major area of concern and difficulty is Forde’s underling understanding of the relationship between the old and new creations.  As is clear from our earlier discussion (particularly with regard to penal substitution), Forde is absolutely adamant that the relationship between the old and new beings must be thought of as a wholly disruptive death and resurrection.  For him, atonement and justification are apocalyptic events that annihilate the old being of sin and is replaced it with a new being of faith.  Sinful humanity resists this movement of death and resurrection because it wishes to hold onto the continuity of the old being and its autonomy.[1]  In one of his later book, Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life, Forde quite specifically attacks the idea of a purely forensic justification on these grounds.[2]  Much as penal substitution allows for the expression of God’s merciful saving will stand in an internal coherence with his holiness, so too a purely forensic account of justification (the “legal metaphor” as he puts it) allows the old being under the condemnation of the law to stand in continuity with the new creature of faith.  Since the idea of imputed righteousness presupposes that the person of faith is the same subject as the one who once stood under the power of sin, a purely forensic justification allows the sinner forgo the total death dealing apocalyptic break of the cross.[3]  Put another way: the imputation of righteousness is simply unnecessary if the old sinful subject has ceased to exist and been replaced.

            From this, much of the difficulty with Forde’s doctrine of justification and atonement becomes evident from the perspective of the article of creation.  According to Forde’s description, what appears to be the case is that creation is not so much redeemed, but is in fact replaced.[4]  The old creation is not purified and redeemed by the cleansing blood of Christ, but rather annihilated.  Though it is certainly not his intention to impugn the goodness of the created order, by using such language Forde seems to place himself perilously close to the Flacius’ similarly unintended heresy.[5]  After all, such an account of the relationship of the old and new creation would appear to assume the very thing that Flacius asserted, namely, that sin is the substance of human nature after the Fall and not merely an accident adhering in it. 

In order to combat this charge, Forde would likely appeal to the sometimes rather hazily defined concept (common in many late twentieth century Lutheran theologians, notably Gerhard Ebeling[6]), of “relational ontology.”[7]  According to this manner of thinking, the ontic reality of a thing or person is not constituted by an unchanging essence within, but rather by the relationships they enter into, the most fundamental of which is their relationship to God.[8]  Therefore, claiming a total discontinuity between the old and new beings is not somehow to assert that the substance of a creature is evil and therefore needs to be replaced by a new substance.  Rather, it is to claim that through the effective address of the gospel a total and wholesale reversal of the existential relationship between God and the sinner occurs.

On one level, Forde’s insight here is something that confessional Lutherans should heed.  The relationship of the sinner to God is not one of degrees, but of kind.  The divine-human relationship constituted by the condemnation of the law is the very opposite of that of grace and justification.  The life-orientation of the sinner is precisely the opposite of that of the person of faith.  Lutherans should not be lulled (as some in fact have[9]) into accepting a Thomistic account of divine grace completing nature.[10]  God’s power, present and active in the preached Word completely turns the sinner around.  Divine grace does not work to activate the sinner’s hidden potencies.

Nevertheless, Forde’s rhetoric of total discontinuity fails on another level.  First, his choice of language often seems to suggest that the creature’s total being is constituted by the relationship of sin and condemnation.  In fact, Forde often boldly speaks of his wholesale contempt for the notion that we are “continuously existing subjects,”[11] i.e., that there is any continuity between the old and new beings.  Nonetheless, if indeed, we are not continuously existing subjects, what becomes of our status as God’s good creatures, of which as the Formula of Concord states, sin is merely an accident disruption?[12]  If essence of humanity is conceptualized relationally, must it not be defined at an even more fundamental level by the creator-creature relationship and not merely by the relationship of sin and condemnation? Indeed, as the history of the Fall suggests, this more fundamental relational status as God’s good creatures is precisely what defines us as sinners.  As Luther at the very least strongly implies in his description of the first article of the creed,[13] sinful humanity perpetually receive the goodness of creation from its creator God, but nevertheless remain untrusting and ungrateful.

Beyond its inability to coherently maintain the creator-creature relationship in light of redemption, Forde’s rhetoric of wholesale disruption fails in other regards as well.  Chiefly, the rhetoric of total reversal stands disconcertingly out of step with God’s trustworthy as it is proclaimed and revealed in the gospel.  In other words, if God’s redemptive act destroys creation, rather than redeems and purifies it, then has he not been faithless to that which has come before?  If he acts in such a way as to be faithless to his original creation by simply replacing it, why would the believer expect God to be faithful in his promise of the gospel? 

The problematic nature of Forde’s fixation on the paradigm of discontinuity also manifests itself in his understanding of the relationship between forgiveness and the law.  For Forde, as we noted earlier, by an act of fiat God spontaneously forgives sinners.  God may, it appears, simply abandon his word of law and its clearly articulated threats of retribution present throughout Sacred Scripture (Dt 27:26, 32:35, etc.). Nevertheless, the question remains: what assurance does the believer possess that God will not abandon his word of gospel just as he did his earlier word of law? 

Part of the answer to this question is that Forde tends to subsume idea of the law as commandment into the larger reality of the law as negative existential relationship.[14]  If God so chooses, he may reverse this relationship and thereby abrogate the law in favor of the new relationship of grace.  Moreover (as we have previously seen), despite his rhetoric to the contrary, ultimately God really does need the law to be fulfilled in order to save. 

Nevertheless, neither answer is sustainable from the perspective of the Scripture or the symbolic writings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. As is abundantly clear from these authorities, God has two separate words of law and gospel.  Through his redemptive work of atonement and justification by the blood of Jesus, God reveals his trustworthiness by fulfilling the threats and promises of both.  Indeed, as the Apostle Paul puts it, by his act of redemption in the cross and the empty tomb, God revealed “his righteousness . . . [as the one who is both] just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26 ESV).

In light of the biblical and confessional authorities, perhaps a better way of conceptualizing the relationship between the old and new creations might be on the basis of an analogy of the fifth ecumenical council description of the relationship between the two natures in Christ. According to this council, Christ’s divine person is a proper hypostasis or center of identity within which his non-personal humanity (anhypostasis) is incorporated and subsists.[15]  In a similar manner, as David Scaer has correctly observes,[16] God’s new act of redemption always incorporates within itself that which has come before.  Nevertheless, the new creation is not somehow the fruit of activating hidden potencies in the old creation (i.e., the Thomistic “grace completing nature”).  Rather, the new creation is its own independent reality, in a similar manner to the divine person of Christ.  Ultimately though, because God is faithful to his previous words and works he always incorporates previous act into his new one.  For this reason, new creation thereby makes itself the proper hypostasis of the anhypostasis of the old creation.[17]  Hence, Jesus took upon himself the flesh and condemnation Adam in order to redeem.  In the resurrection, his corpse was incorporated into his body of glory (See 1 Cor 15:35-8).  Similarly, the sacraments of the new creation contain within themselves the elements of the old creation (bread, wine, water).  Lastly, and most importantly, the law is contained within and ultimately fulfilled in the gospel (Rom 3:26, 8:3-4). 

This being said, although it is important to recognize the unity of the old and new creations, Forde must be nonetheless commended for insisting that Bible describes the advent of the new creation as an eschatological judgment.  Although the old creation is by no means abrogated by the new, in being purified from sin it does not escape God’s judgment.  Therefore, in the Incarnation of the second Adam, God the Holy Spirit purified the flesh of Mary from the sin of the first Adam.  In the crucifixion, God concentrated all sin in the flesh of Christ and reduced him to a corpse in order to redeem the whole world (Isa. 53:4, 2 Cor 5:21, 1 Pt 2:24).  Nevertheless, this judgment does not annihilate, but rather cleanses creation from the accidental vitiation of sin.  Jesus’ body which bore burden of human sin, becomes for those who have faith the medium through which we die and are resurrected to new and infinitely abundant divine life. 

[1] This emphasis can also be found in Forde’s students.  See Mark Mattes, "Beyond the Impasse: Reexamining the Third Use of the Law," Concordia Theological Quarterly 69, no. 3-4 (2005): 278.  Mattes writes:  ". . . there is no continuity between old and new beings. This is because the new being lives from faith in Jesus Christ alone." 

[2] Forde, Justification By Faith, 18-9.

[3] Ibid.,13.

[4] I thank Rev. David Ramirez for this particular way of expressing the problem with Forde’s description of redemption.

[5] FC, SD, I; CT, 859-881.  FC, Ep. I; CT, 779-85.  For sources on Flacius and his misstatement regarding original sin, see the following: F. Bente, Historical Introduction to the Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1965), 144-5; I.A. Dorner, History of Protestant Theology, Particularly in Germany, 2 vols., trans. George Robson and Sophia Taylor (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1871), 1:370-83;  González, 3:124-5;  Richard Klann, "Original Sin," in A Contemporary Look at the Formula of Concord, ed. Robert Preus and Wilbert Rosin (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978), 115-7; Robert Kolb, Bound Choice, Election, and the Wittenberg Theological Method: From Martin Luther to the Formula of Concord (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 118-20; idem, "Historical Background to the Formula of Concord," in in A Contemporary Look at the Formula of Concord, ed. Robert Preus and Wilbert Rosin (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978), 29-33;  Ivan Kordić, "Croatian Philosophers IV: Matija Vlaèiæ Ilirik – Mathias Flacius Illyricus," Prolegomena 4, no. 2 (2005): 229;  Oliver Olson, "Matthias Flacius," in The Reformation Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Early Modern Period , ed. Carter Lindberg (Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2002),  87;  Pelikan, 4:142-4;  Wilhelm Preger, Matthias Flacius Illyricus und seine Zeit, 2 vols. (Erlangen: Blassing, 1859-61), 2:310-412;  Otto Ritschl, Dogmengeschichte des Protestantismus, 4 vols. (Göttingen and Leipzig: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1908-1927), 2:430-54;  Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1881), 1:271-4;  Seeberg, 2:367-9;  August Detlev Twesten, Matthias Flacius Illyricus, eine Verlesung.  Mit Autobiorgraphischen Beilagen und einer Abhandlung über Melanchthons Verhalten zum Interim von Hermann Rössel (Berlin: Bethage, 1844), 20-22;  Heinrich Vogel, “On Original Sin, The Flacian Aberration” in No Other Gospel: Essays in Commemoration of the 400th Anniversay of the Formula of Concord, 1580-1980, ed. Arnold Koelpin (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1980), 126-31

[6] See the following writing by Gerhard Ebeling:  Dogmatik des Christlichen Glaubens, 3 vols. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1979); idem, Einfuhrung in Theologische Sprachlehre (Tübingen: Mohr, 1971);  idem, Evangelische Evangelienauslegung: Eine Untersuchung zu Luthers Hermeneutik (München: Evangelischer Verlag Albert Lempp, 1942); idem,  Frei aus Glauben (Tübingen, Mohr, 1968); idem, Die Geschichtlichkeit der Kirche und Ihrer Verkundigung als Theologisches Problem: Drei Vorlesungen (Tübingen: Mohr, 1954); idem,   Kirchengeschichte als Geschichte der Auslegung der Heiligen Schrift (Tübingen: Mohr, 1947); idem,  Luther: Einfuhrung in Sein Denken (Tübingen: Mohr, 1964); idem, Luthers Seelsorge : Theologie in der Vielfalt der Lebenssituationen an Seinen Briefen Dargestellt(Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997);  Lutherstudien, 3 vols. (Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 1971-1989); idem, The Nature of Faith, trans. Ronald Smith (London: Collins, 1961);  idem, The Problem of Historicity in the Church and its Proclamation, trans. Grover Foley (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967).  Idem, Psalmenmeditationen(Tübingen: Mohr, 1968);  idem, The Study of Theology, trans. Duane Priebe (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978); idem, Theologie und Verkündigung; ein Gesprach mit Rudolf Bultmann (Tübingen: Mohr, 1962);  idem, The Truth of the Gospel: An Exposition of Galatians, trans. David Green (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985); idem,  Das Wesen des Christlichen Glaubens (Tübingen, Mohr, 1959);  idem, Wort Gottes und Tradition; Studien zu einer Hermeneutik der Konfessionen (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1964); idem, Wort und Glaube (Tübingen: Mohr, 1960).

[7] See Gerhard Forde, Pat Keifert, Mary Knutsen, Marc Kolden, Jim Nestingen, and Gary Simpson, “A Call for Discussion of the ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine on Justification’” Dialog 36, no. 3 (Summer, 1997): 226-227.  Note that the authors view the issue between Lutherans and Catholics on the issue of justification specifically pertains to substance vs. “relational” ontology.

[8] See Ebeling, Dogmatik des Christlichen Glaubens, 3:195-200.  Ebeling describes the movement of justification from a state of non-being (Nichtsein) to being (Sein).  Also see Wilfried Joest, Ontologie der Person bei Luther (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967), 14, 37, 362. 

[9] See description in Mark Mattes, "The Thomistic Turn in Evangelical Catholic Ethics," Lutheran Quarterly 16 (2002): 65-100

[10] See description in Jacques Maritain, Integral Humanism, trans. J. Evans (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 291-308.

[11] Gerhard Forde, “Radical Lutheranism,” in A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, eds. Mark Mattes and Steven Paulson, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 15

[12] FC Ep, I; CT, 779-85.

[13] SC II.1; CT, 543.  Luther writes: “believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.”

[14] See summary description in Forde, The Law-Gospel Debate, 192.  See my own discussion of this fact in Jack Kilcrease, "Forde's Doctrine of the Law: A Confessional Lutheran Critiique,Concordia Theological Quarterly 75, no. 1 (2011): 151-180.

[15] For the text of the fifth ecumenical council see Heinrich Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy Deferrai (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1954), 85-90.  See discussion of the content of the fifth ecumenical council in Martin Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ, trans. J. A. O. Preus (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971), 68-72;  Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, Pt. 2, vol. 2 (Louisville, Ky: Westminster-John Knox, 1995), 341, 387, 402- 10, 419-62, 463;   John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Washington: Corpus Book, 1969), 38-40, 59-64;  Pelikan, 2:29-30.

[16] See David Scaer, " "Sacraments as an Affirmation of Creation," Concordia Theological Quarterly 57, no. 4 (1993): 241-63.

[17] See LW 34:140.  Luther himself comments in The Disputation Concerning Man (1536): “Therefore, man in this life is the simple material of God for the form of the future life. . . [j]ust as the whole creation which is now subject to vanity [Rom. 8:20] is for God the material for its future glorious form.”  Emphasis added.


  1. What do you think drove Forde to focus/establish such a strong distinction between the old and new creation (even to the damaging points you bring out)?

    The irony of it to me is that while Forde would argue against the imposition of man's expectations onto God, it seems like his approach here is almost a logical attempt to work out the simul justus et peccator tension in a Christian's life.

  2. Eric- I think it was the theology of both Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. The dialectical theologians of the early 20th century took their inspiration from biblical scholarship of Albert Schweitzer, who emphasized Jesus as an apocalyptic figure who would completely reverse the present situation of creation. I would also suspect that the idea of the exclusive Christological focus on Barth as providing a new and wholly other knowledge of God played a significant role as well.

  3. Thank you for this. Pr. Ramirez and I have been trying to get people to see that Forde has a first article problem equally as much as a second article problem for a while.