Thursday, November 10, 2011

Werner Elert on Atonement.

Here's a section of my dissertation which I am revising for publication.  This portion deals with Werner Elert's understanding of atonement.

We will begin our discussion with the Erlangen theologian and Luther scholar, Werner Elert (1885-1954).[1]  In order to examine Werner Elert’s contribution to the question of atonement, we will look primarily at one of his shorter works, entitled Law and Gospel (German title:Zwischen Gnade und Ungnade).  Among the theologians that we will study, Elert tends to be by far the least willing to revise the position of the Lutheran confessors and scholastics.  In distinction to many of his contemporaries (as we will see in the next section, Aulén being foremost among them), Elert has a relatively positive assessment of the Lutheran theology of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on the question of atonement, as evidenced by his treatment of them in his magnum opus, The Structure of Lutheranism (German title: Morphologie des luthertums).[2] 

In this shorter work on law and gospel, Elert attacks Karl Barth and the theology of the Barmen Declaration for reducing all of God’s words to ones of grace.[3]  According to Elert, Barth’s contention that the fact that God even speaks to us is grace, will destroy the integrity of the biblical message: “[The] statement of the Decalogue about God visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children has some significance. “God threatens to punish” is the way Luther interprets this, and without a doubt he is correct.”[4]  This does not mean that these words of judgment are intended to be an end in itself.  Law is always ordered towards promise, insofar as the second use of the law is the chief one. Nonetheless, law is not grace and grace is not law.

Elert moves on to discuss the distinction between law and gospel that he sees rooted in the ministry of Jesus.  In the Gospels, Christ comes to both fulfill and intensify the law.[5]  Nevertheless, though Christ’s ministry may perform this work of the law, his proper office is one of reconciliation.  Any use of the law that Christ engages in is ultimately in the service of the gospel.[6]  Christ used the law in order to uncover unrighteousness, thereby demonstrating to his contemporaries that not one of them was righteous.  Those who claimed to be righteous were able to play at being righteous before true righteousness could be revealed through the proper preaching of the law.[7]  By contrast, in the service those who were thought of as unrighteous, Christ crossed many social and cultural boundaries, and thereby showing grace and mercy to the weak.[8] 

The ministry of Jesus therefore had three consequences.  First, the sinners who encountered Jesus had to recognize that he was not a sinner. Purity, truth and innocence cannot therefore be conveyed to us by dogmas or commandment, but must rather ultimately comes in a person, that is, the person of Christ: “They are the criteria of human personhood, and there is no other person in whom they assume visual form for us than the person of Christ.”[9]  The second consequence is that there becomes evident an absolute difference between Christ and those who associate with him.  Humanity comes to recognize in Christ that they are wholly sinful in relation to him: “It is a total difference, the difference between the whole Christ and the whole man- as a sinner.”[10]  The third consequence is that in light of the first two revelations, humans who through faith in his word come to unite themselves with Christ are sinners “in truth.”[11]  That is, a person is something “in truth” according to Elert, when he or she ceases to engage in the hypocritical attempt to be something that they are not and finally admits the reality of who they are.  Hence, mere contact with the person of Christ thereby fulfilled the convicting function of the law.

In light of these implications and distinctions, Elert moves on to discuss how we should understand the death of Christ.  Humanity is caught up in what he refers to as “nomological”[12] existence.  Nomological existence means that humanity exists under the law and its ethos of retribution and self-justification.  Christ within his ministry transcended such a law by reaching out to sinners without consideration of their guilt.  Those who adhered to the ethos of the law and sought their own self-justification through it were those who administered the death of Jesus.[13]  They killed Christ in order to “help the law against the promise.”[14]  Nonetheless, Christ’s death was also an act of God’s retributive wrath, since the law without the gospel not only determines humanity in a cycle of self-justification, but works God’s wrath against sin.[15]

The cross both exposes and judges humanity’s nomological existence: “[The] death of Christ is judgment.  God is here administering justice according to the law of retribution.  Here the nomological being of mankind is not only exposed in its falsehood, but because expiation must occur right here, it is mortally wounded.”[16]  The law is undone by its being fulfilled once and for all.  In this sense, the death of Jesus can function as both law and gospel.  It is a fulfillment of the promise of God to redeem from the power of law as foreshadowed in the suffering servant songs.[17]  Considered in itself alone though, it is only law in that it represents an absolute judgment of sin by God.[18]  Only through the resurrection does God vindicate that Jesus’ enactment of a new order of forgiveness.[19]  In this order of grace, the voice of the law is utterly abolished.  In fact “the law no longer has any voice whatsoever.”[20]

Though Elert’s position appears to be similar to Luther, the Lutheran confessors and the seventeenth-century scholastics, there are some notable differences.  For Elert, there is more of an emphasis on Jesus’ earthly ministry than in the theologians whom we examined earlier. Also, in contrast particularly to Chemnitz, there is little reflection on the role of the hypostatic union in relation to the redemptive work of Christ.  Otherwise, Elert largely upholds the traditional Lutheran doctrine of atonement, albeit in an incomplete manner.

[1] See the following works by Werner Elert:  Werner Elert, Das Christliche Ethos: Grundlinien der lutherischen Ethik (Tubingen:  Furche,1949); idem, Der christliche Glaube; Grundlinien der lutherischen Dogmatik  (Berlin:  Furche-Verlag, 1960);  idem, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, trans. Norman Nagel (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1966);  idem, The Structure of Lutheranism: The Theology and Philosophy of Life of Lutheranism, Especially in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. Walter Hansen (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1962);  idem, Zwischen Gnade und Ungnade(München: Evangelischer Verlag, 1948).  See the following pieces on secondary literature on Elert: Matthew Becker, Werner Elert in Retrospect,” Lutheran Quarterly 20 (Autumn 2006): 249-302 Friedrich Duensing, Gesetz als Gericht; eine luthersche Kategorie in der Theologie Werner Elerts und Friedrich Gogartens(München: C. Kaiser, 1970); Sigurjón Arni Eyjólfsson, Rechtfertigung und Schöpfung in der Theologie Werner Elerts (Hannover: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1994); Lowell Green, The Erlangen Theology (Ft. Wayne, IN: Lutheran Legacy, 2010);  Jörg Kailus, Gesetz und Evangelium in Luthers Grossem Galaterkommentar sowie bei Werner Elert und Paul Althaus: Darstellung in Grundzügen und Vergleich (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2004); Wolf Krötke, Das Problem Gesetz und Evanglium bei W. Elert und P. Althaus (Zürich, E V Z Verlag, 1965); Notger Slenczka, Selbstkonstitution und Gotteserfahrung : W. Elerts Deutung der neuzeitlichen Subjektivität im Kontext der Erlanger Theologie (Göttingen : Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999).

[2] Elert, Structure of Lutheranism, 106-17.

[3] Werner Elert, Law and Gospel, trans. Edward Shroeder (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967) 4-5.  (This is a translation of Zwischen Gnade und Ungnade). Elert is responding the follow work by Barth: Karl Barth, “Gospel and Law,” in Community, State and Church: Three Essays, ed. Will Herberg (New York: Doubleday, 1960), 71-100.

[4] Elert, Law and Gospel, 6.

[5] Ibid., 18-9.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Ibid., 20-21.

[8] Ibid., 21-25.

[9] Ibid., 23.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 28.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 29.

[17] Ibid., 29-30.

[18] Ibid., 30.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.


  1. Elert presupposes the hypostatic union in his Christology. His final work was based on making clear that the whole Christ must be preached and that in redemption one cannot talk about the exalted Christ without referring to the earthly Jesus and the reverse. As in the Formula of Concord's articles on Christology and the Lord's Supper, Elert affirms the complete Christ present as exalted Lord in redemption. There are no Kantian differences in his (Elert's) thought such as making distinctions between things in themselves and things as they appear. Elert was battling against Kantianism most of his academic life. This would include his opposition to Karl Barth who presupposed Kantian categories in his theology. This would return one to the Marburg debate. (I am a graduate of Christ Seminary-Seminex and count as my mentors both Bob Bertram and Ed Schroeder, Robert C. Schultz)

    The Rev. George T. Rahn, pastor/evangelist
    Lutheran Parish of Western Kansas, ELCA
    Colby, KS.

  2. "This does not mean that these words of judgment are intended to be an end in itself. Law is always ordered towards promise,..."

    With all due respect I think that Elert would disagree with the above assessment. God's words of condemnation are intended to be an end in itself in terms of leading to death. Unbelief leads there and the seriousness of God's wrath as life lived under the law leads to that end. Having said that it is God's promise that gives us the insight into how serious God is about God's other Word in Jesus which saves sinners. Karl Barth was all about smoothing out the real-dialectic that the law and Gospel do indeed have, as when one speaks the other is silent and both can never speak in one voice. Barth was famous for believing that the smoothing out into resolution can happen without the cross of Christ.