Thursday, March 28, 2013

Eternal Law, Natural Law, and Erlangen: A Brief Response to Robert C. Baker.

It has been brought to my attention that my name has come up in a discussion between Rev. Robert C. Baker and a number of other individuals.  This discussion can be found here:

Go to "Is legalism antinomianism."

Rev. Baker made a series of unusual claims that I would like to address here.  Baker has made a number of inaccurate claims about me and my position in the past, and I have largely ignored them, but I think it's finally important to address him directly.

1. A discussion arose regarding my interpretation of Gerhard Forde and my criticisms of him.  One contributor said that he couldn't spend the money to read my dissertation.  Here is an article of mine on the subject that you can read online (in fact, I refine much of the argument in the dissertation in them) and also my public presentation on the subject which is now a CTQ article (which you will soon be able to read online):

2. Rev. Baker asserts: "Of course, Dr. Kilcrease has never demonstrated that I do not understand Gerhard Forde, his context, or how or in what way I imputed false ideas to him, or even what those false ideas were."

Well, but I believe I have.

A. Forde, according to Baker, is very heavily influenced by the Erlangen school of theology.  This is false.  He is influenced by a particular member of the Erlangen school through the filter of Gustav Aulen- namely Johannes von Hofmann.  Also, this is largely limited to his view of atonement.  Forde's view of the law (which Baker is interested in) has nothing to do with the Erlangen school and largely has other sources in Swedish and Finnish Lutheran thinkers.  This is all in my articles and dissertation. 

B. According to Baker Forde rejects natural law.  This is his main assertion in his contribution to Lutherans and Natural Law (which incidentally he consulted with me about).  Since Baker was trained by Roman Catholics at Creighton University (where he receive an MA in Healthcare Ethics), he has become extremely enthusiastic for the notion of natural law as a sort of cure-all for our present cultural nihilism (as indeed many RCs are!). 

The claim that Forde rejects natural law is also false.  In fact, when I mentioned to a number of Fordites last Fall that Baker interprets Forde this way they laughed out loud.  Forde strongly upholds the idea of natural law and its corollary the doctrine of the orders of creation.  As I point out in my critique of Forde (this is in the last section of the Law article, on third use of the law) that's the problem.  Because Forde came of age in the 1950s, where American society was formed by Judeo-Christian ethics, he assumed that people in using their reason would logically come to the conclusions of Judeo-Christian ethics.  This proved to be incorrect, and so, Forde by upholding the natural law alone as the guide to Christian activities in the world allows too much to fallen human reason.  Revelation needs to clarify God's law and what actions humans should take.

Since the human mind is distorted by sin, it will only come partially to the right conclusions regarding the natural law.  Humans have a conscience and they can also look at the structures of nature to see God's will, but both of these things have been corrupted by sin.  Hence, God needs to reveal his will to humans and clarify what his law actually is.  Recognizing this, Luther made a shift in his thinking over the 1520s.  When he wrote "How Christians Should Regard Moses" he put all of his eggs in the basket of natural law which human being could simply rationally read off nature.  Later, in the Antinomian Disputations, he states that God revealed the law to Moses, and if he did, then it shows that human beings need the law to be clarified to them via divine revelation.

Lastly, Baker claims elsewhere that the Erlangen school rejected natural law.  Again, this is quite false.  Exactly the opposite was true.  In fact, this is part of the reason they were criticized by Barth.  Against Erlangen, Barth extended his attack first made against Brunner and natural theology in Nein!  As Barth observes in CD 3.4, that the that the claim that the Christian can know God's will on the basis of the orders of creation and the natural (something taught by Erlangen and Lutheran social ethics in general) could lead to (and he believed it had!) the understanding that these orders were independent of God and therefore autonomous.  For Barth, the Lutheran doctrine of natural law and orders of creation meant that creatures could go about there business without the revelation of God and his law.  This would ultimately lead to Nazism and other deifications of the state. 

3. Baker quotes me:

"In the same place, Dr. Kilcrease further says, "God has set human nature up so that men and women naturally interact with one another according to set drives and when one works against these drives stuff goes haywire and much evil results. Hence, even secular people when they want to get along in the world must obey God to a certain degree. Similarly, those who want to reject God's order entirely have to protect themselves against that order through artificial means (such as the reliance on others to clean up the messes created by their behavior!)."

So, according to Dr. Kilcrease, God's eternal will is God's order and natural human interaction or drives.

Of course, this is an impossibility. God's eternal will is neither God's creational orders, or human "drives," whatever those are."

As usual, Rev. Baker does not say outright what he's trying to insinuate.  But the gist of this is that he is accusing me of rejecting lex aeterna or the eternal law. 

There are a couple of things that are rather ironic here.  First, is that he later (on the same page) insinuates that I reject the natural after having quoted this passage in which I am arguing in favor of the natural law.  My point here in this passage is that the law of God is written so deeply into nature that even when human beings sinfully distort nature, they can never actually fully escape the law.  In terms of civil righteousness, they must actually obey God's law somewhat just to get along with life.

Secondly, affirming that created things even after sin partially reflect God's eternal legal will does not negate that God has an eternal legal will.  Why would it?  Again, I fully affirm the eternity of the law as God's will and, in fact, I argue for it at some length in the CTQ article.  Baker has publicly claimed to have read the CTQ article and seen my presentation at Ft. Wayne.  So the question is: Was he being dishonest when he said that he read my article, or, was he intentionally being dishonest about my position on the natural and eternal law?  It must be one or the other!

Thirdly, part of Baker's difficulty is that he assumes that non-exclusive statement are somehow exclusive.  Case-in-point is the quotation from him above.  For Baker, it would seem that if I affirm that God's law is reflected and worked through the created order of things, then I must somehow reject that God has his eternal legal will.  Obviously that doesn't make any sense and is false (if he considers this false, how is it that he buys into natural law theory?).  One actually presupposes the other: If God has an eternal will, creation obvious reflects it!  Similarly, when I stated in an earlier e-mail exchange between us that the essence of the law was God's eternal will, but that he "office of the law" (Luther's term) was anything in creation that threatened or accused, he objected on similar grounds.  I pointed out that this claim was based on a statement of Luther's in the Antinomian Disputations, but it was confessionally binding on us since it was quoted in the Formula of Concord!  The conversation ended there.  Nevertheless, the statement is perfectly coherent.  Because we are sinners, we subject to wrath in this life through the medium of the created order.  Why?  Because we are out of accordance with the eternal will of God that the cosmos is ruled on the basis of! 

4.   Lastly, Baker writes:

"Franz, you've presented, pretty much, the traditional understanding of the atonement post Anselm.  Which was rejected by theologians of the Erlangen School.  And Gerhard Forde.  Because they didn't like this Jewish God stuff, appeasing God's anger through human blood thingy."

A couple of misunderstanding and distortions here.  First, Franz states "Jesus offered up his life to the penal justice of God to propitiate his wrath."  This was the position of Luther and Protestant orthodoxy, but it was not the position of Anselm.  Anselm taught that Christ's death wasn't punishment, but meritorious.  Merit counteracts the human debt of sin, it doesn't satisfy wrath.  So, Jesus did not take upon himself the sins of the world, but offered himself up in a supreme act of merit.  To use Lutheran terminology (first proposed by Flacius) here: for Anselm there is an active righteousness in the cross, but no passive righteousness.  Also, Anselm didn't believe that substitution was necessary to satisfy the wrath of God, but rather because God's infinite honor was violated.  Big difference.  For Anselm, God doesn't have wrath, it's just a metaphor for when God does things which seem wrathful to humans.

Secondly, although von Hofmann rejected penal substitution, his colleagues at Erlangen did not and in fact attacked him for it (BTW, although von Hofmann did think that substitution made God into a cosmic jerk, it didn't have anything to do (at least overtly) with anti-Semitism- as Baker insinuates).  As problematic as Thomasius' teaching about kenosis was, he was correct that von Hofmann's view of atonement distorted justification.  Theodosius Harnack and Thomasius actually wrote a short piece against von Hofmann for this very reason.  In the 20th century, both Elert and Althaus upheld penal substitution.  Althaus has a long section in his Theology of Martin Luther book where he attacks Aulen for his view of Luther's atonement theology (which closely mirrored von Hofmann's!).  Elert states repeatedly in his Law and Gospel, The Christian Ethos, and The Christian Faith books that he believes in penal substitition.  In my dissertation, I summarize Elert's teaching on this point in the third chapter. 

One more thing concerning the former point: Baker is clearly aware of this, because I pointed this all out to him about a year and a half ago on a FB thread.  In order to prove to me that Elert rejected penal substitution, he quoted me a passage in which Elert explicitly stated that Christ died as a substitute under God's wrath.  So, much like he insinuated that I did not believe in the natural law, by quoting a passage from my writing where I affirm my belief in natural law, he claimed that Elert rejects substitution by quoting him upholding it.  So, that he would repeat this false claim again after I demonstrated to him that it was false (in fact, self-evidently false from a quotation he himself was using!) is deeply odd.


  1. Interesting article. I wasn't aware that your CTQ article was available online; I have been wanting to read it for a while. I understand where Baker gets from Forde that natural Law is to be rejected, as Forde tends to identify Law as an existential category to the neglect of the traditional scholastic approach that places the Law in the eternal nature and will of God. I have found Forde to be somewhat inconsistent on this subject, as he affirms the first use of the Law pretty adamantly in certain works. I think his language is sometimes over the top (and I think on purpose). I think Bultmann and Barth also play a larger role in the formulation of Forde's thought than is often admitted.

  2. I don't think that he's inconsistent on this. Forde's understanding of the law is expansive. The human encounter with the law is one of existential dread, so that everything that causes this is the law (I do personally find the claim that the law is existential dread problematic. Existential dread is what Luther would call part of the "office of the law" but is not identical with the law). Nevertheless, the natural law also does this and is therefore part of the phenomenon of the law. Forde says this in a passage I quote in my article.

    Part of the issue here is Baker's false exclusiveness. In other words: He seems to think that the law is present in the form of existential dread, it also can't be the natural law. Why not? The natural law promotes existential dread, so it logically must be part of his inclusive definition of the law!

  3. I don't understand this Elert-bashing at all. He was no antinomian, no Nazi. Of course he erred during certain periods of his life. But when it comes to his theology, he is one of the greatest Lutheran theologians of the 20th century. Maybe it's bad translations and worse: students of Elert who have not understood him, who spoiled his reputation in the U.S. Nevertheless: this is a very sad story. What more can be said concerning honoring the orders of the creator than what Elert said in his "Ethos". And who else proved historically that the Lutheran understanding of closed communion is catholic in the best sense. Many other topics could be added.

  4. I'm inclined to agree. Part of the issue is how certain ideas were distorted by people, particularly in Seminex. I think that his view of the law does not entirely please me (I have many criticisms), but I think it would be unfair to characterize him as antinomian. What's wrong is more complex than that!