Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Further Word in Defense of Werner Elert (Part Two)

In part one, I noted an online post about Elert by Dr. Michael Root. He drew attention to an essay by his former colleague, Professor David Yeago: “Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology: Reflections on the Cost of a Construal,” Pro Ecclesia 2 (1993): 37–49. Dr. Yeago, who has also left the ELCA and is now a member of the North American Lutheran Church, explicitly blames Elert for articulating an understanding of law and gospel that has “contributed significantly to the gnostic and antinomian devolution of contemporary Protestantism” (38).

While one could respond critically to several aspects of this essay, I will merely point out those places where I think he has misunderstood and misrepresented Elert’s theology.

According to Yeago, the “antithesis of law and gospel cannot be mediated or contextualized in any way; it can only be terminated by the gospel’s negation of the law, by the victory of the one word over the other. The law is sheer oppression, the gospel sheer liberation, and this total opposition can only be ended by the negation of the law” (40; emphasis original).

“Since the law/gospel distinction is placed in no wider context, but is itself the context into which everything else in theology must be integrated, the grounds for the oppressiveness of the law must be sought in the law itself. If the grounds for the oppressiveness of the law lay outside the law, say in our disobedience, then the law would have to be placed in some wider context. Its oppressiveness and its antithesis to the gospel would then not be a primitive datum, and the law/gospel distinction would not be the last horizon. So it becomes necessary to say that the law oppresses because it is law, that is, because it is an ordered demand, a requirement, a command. The law oppresses because of the kind of word it is, not because of the situation in which we encounter it” (Yeago, 40-1). [At this point there is a footnote: “Cf. Elert, Structure of Lutheranism, 35-43; Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought (Fortress, 1970), 119-121.]

1. Unfortunately, Dr. Yeago’s essay provides zero indication that its author had actually read Dr. Elert’s principal writings beyond the errant English translation of the first volume of the Morphologie des Luthertums. No other work by Elert is cited by Yeago, except the ET of the Morphologie.

2. A careful examination of the original German text of the pages cited (“The Law and the Wrath of God”), as well as the relevant pages on “the law” in Elert’s dogmatics and his book on the Christian ethos, indicates that at no point does Elert ever suggest that “the law is sheer oppression, the gospel sheer liberation” or that “this total opposition [between the law and the gospel] can only be ended by the negation of the law.” Rather, Elert consistently taught that the law of God oppresses only sinners. While the hope of Christian faith is that indeed the gospel silences the accusations of the law, the law continues to speak powerfully to the Christian, especially since the Christian remains a sinner in this life unto death.

While the law of God is experienced by sinners as the revelation of the wrath of God against sin and sinners, the law of God does in fact “give instruction concerning God’s will” (Morph., 1.36). “The law surely reveals the ‘moral world order’ [sittliche Weltordnung], and the conscience can surely not avoid acknowledging its validity. … The law can by no means neutralize the personal call of God which the human being hears in the conscience. Neither can it suggest moral freedom to the human being. Rather it convinces him of his lack of freedom. He is unfree both because the law has been given to him and also because he is not able to keep it” (1.38). The law of God is oppressive—but not merely oppressive—precisely because of who we are as sinful creatures of God and because of the situation in which the law of God addresses us concretely. This is true even for those sinners who believe in Christ. Missing entirely from Yeago’s presentation is any analysis of Elert’s understandings of the concrete, creaturely-historical-ethical, fateful, overlapping, conflicting “orders” in which God’s law and gospel address us and call us to repentance, faith, and responsible ethical action. (The section on “orders” in Elert’s dogmatics is sufficient to demonstrate that his theology was both anti-Gnostic and anti-antinomian. See also “two-fold use of the law” and “the natural orders” in the Christian Ethos.)

3. At no point does Elert ever assert that “the gospel will liberate us from the situation of having to hear commandment [sic] at all, from having to reckon with any word whatsoever which has the formal character of ordered demand” (Yeago, 41). Missing here is any attention to the dozens and dozens of pages in Elert’s principal works that explicate what the new life in Christ looks like under the gospel and how it faithfully responds in obedience to evangelical exhortations (“gospel exhortations,” we might say), which are indeed “commands,” but ones that flow forth from the gospel and are a joy to heed in the obedience of faith.

4. Elert would never write (and never did write!) that “the law oppresses because it proposes a determinate ordering of our existence and calls for a specified response” or that “the gospel liberates because it delivers from determinate order and specified response” or that “salvation is liberation from form and order and the law’s cruel demand for them” (Yeago, 41; cf. p. 44). Following the evangelical-Lutheran doctrines of creation and the new obedience of faith, Elert described the character of obedience to Christ as faith that is active in love. “It is not enough to observe isolated commands. We must fit ourselves into the law of life of him who is the measure of all things. That requires faith, unconditional confidence in his person and his divine authorization” (Christliche Ethos, 325). For this description it is necessary to explicate how and why the individual believer in Christ lives under the law and under the gospel at all times and in all places—unto death. Both words of God speak truthfully and very specifically to the concrete existence of the repenting/believing sinner (the sinning penitent/believer) who cannot escape the conditions and orderings of his/her creaturely life before his or her final day. “Only sinners belong to the Lutheran Church; not willful sinners, to be sure, but penitent sinners—yet always only sinners, who in this life can never be anything else” (Morph. 1.317). Yeago opines: “Elert’s sinners are supposedly penitent, but this apparently makes no necessary difference to their moral behavior” (Yeago, 42). Not so! Clearly, Yeago had not read Elert’s description of objective Christian ethics, which forms the final part of The Christian Ethos. (Maybe he has read it since 1993, but there's no indication he had done so at that time.) The Christian life occurs within both the natural orders (family, state, etc.) and the order of the church, within which the Christian is influenced by the preaching of law and gospel, the administration of the sacraments, evangelical exhortations to live in Christ, and the positive influence of Christian mores within the corporate community of Christians. The Christian ethos is both subjective (the individual repenting/believing sinner) and objective (the word and sacraments; the church’s liturgy—all objectively prior to and influential upon the individual; the totality of individuals “in Christ” within the Christian corporate community; the order of Christian love and forgiveness in the acts of the church; the collective church as a force within history; etc.). Again, Elert certainly did not contrast “form” and “freedom” in the life of the Christian or the corporate Christian community.

5. Contrary to Yeago’s assertion that “the doctrine of the Trinity” posed “a terrific problem with which [Elert] labors mightily and somewhat inconclusively” (p. 43, referring again only to one small section of the first volume of the Morph.), Elert believed, taught, and confessed the orthodox dogmas that are taught in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition. For Elert, dogma must define “the mandatory content of the church’s proclamation of law and gospel.” The church can proclaim nothing else. See Elert’s lengthy section on “God in se” in his dogmatics (Part III). The explication of the Trinitarian confession is itself the explication of law (“You shall have no other gods before me…” etc.) and the gospel (“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh…”; “God was in Christ…”; the Paraklete who speaks of Him who sends Him, who "makes the earthly Christ present in the future era after the latter has shattered the earthly era…"; etc.). The compelling motive for the doctrine of the Trinity inheres in the relationship of the Son/Logos to the Father and the relationship of the incarnate Word to the work of the Spirit (see esp. sec. 35 in the dogmatics). The doctrine of the Trinity is not some Aufhebung of the law/gospel dialectic, but is itself the concrete teaching of dogma in service to the gospel. Dogma is, in fact, fully admissible and necessary in a theology structured by law and gospel. Elert, too, could have said, “The church’s dogma is, after all, her confessing response to the self-giving and self-identification of God in Jesus Christ. The church formulates dogma, one might say, in order to acknowledge the concrete form of God’s self-giving in Christ” (Yeago, 43). For Elert the “decree” of N-C fits fully within the confession of the gospel. To confess the orthodox dogma of the Trinity is to speak the gospel, this basic testimony of the gospel about Christ. For Elert, “the dogma of the Trinity wants to contain no more than what God’s gospel testifies of him. For the gospel reveals precisely that relationship of God to us, his creatures, which alone permits us to speak of him.”

6. Following Luther, who was merely following the explicit teaching of the apostles Paul and John, Elert taught that if you want to escape sin, the wrath of God, and death—and be saved—then trust in no other god than the Son of Man. “The gospel is the narrative of this self-identification and self-giving, the story of Jesus of Nazareth recounted as the story of God’s ‘taking form’ concretely pro nobis in the midst of the world” (Yeago, 47). Elert would totally agree! One cannot lay the blame for American Gnosticism (however Yeago would define this) at the feet of Elert. His writings, if considered in their totality, have not left us “easy prey for the Gnostic virus” (Yeago, 45). Rather, they provide a healthy antidote to such a threat!

Elert, too, hoped that the Christian future would in fact belong "to a theology and a church both catholic and evangelical that will not flinch from the radical affirmations of the gospel" (Yeago, 49).


  1. Dr. Becker,
    I recall reading some time ago that Elert's Dogmatics was being translated anew. Any info on that?

  2. Elert's dogmatics is indeed being translated anew by Robert Schultz with assistance from others. That project, I understand, is being funded partly by the Crossing Community, founded by Bob Bertram and Ed Schroeder. I am eager to see this book. BTW, after I finish translating the five volumes of Schlink's collected works I plan to put out a book of Elert's sermons. I did some research for this project in Erlangen last year.