Book Review

"Friends of the Law: Luther's Use of the Law for the Christian Life" by Edward A. Engelbrecht

David VanDrunen
Edward A. Engelbrecht
Friday, June 28th 2013
Jul/Aug 2013

This useful and well-researched volume addresses an issue familiar to most readers of Modern Reformation: the threefold use of the law of God. Although Edward Engelbrecht's primary concern is with Martin Luther and the Lutheran tradition, his consideration of how theologians in the early and medieval churches handled this issue, as well as a brief treatment of John Calvin's views in comparison with Luther's, makes this book of interest beyond Lutheran circles.

From the outset, Engelbrecht acknowledges that for some years there has been a broad consensus among Lutheran theologians that Luther taught only a twofold use of the law; that is, a "civil" use (the law restrains the wicked and keeps social order), and a "theological" use (the law exposes people's sins and drives them to Christ). This consensus also holds that Luther's younger colleague, Philipp Melanchthon, originated the idea of a third use of the law (the law as a guide for right living for Christian believers), an idea adopted in the Formula of Concord under Melanchthon's influence. Yet Engelbrecht notes that Lutheran theologians formerly believed that Luther himself taught a third use of the law, and in this volume he sets out to recover this view and to correct the present consensus.

Central to Engelbrecht's recovery effort is his attempt to put Luther's writings about the use of the law in proper context. The first context is patristic and medieval theology. Engelbrecht surveys the views of a number of theologians of the early and medieval church and concludes that Luther did not invent the idea of the use of the law (as is commonly asserted), but learned it from his predecessors in previous centuries. Though he identifies several ways in which Luther spoke about the use of the law in new ways’particularly as it pertains to justification and the law-gospel distinction’Engelbrecht thinks the view of Luther as holding only a twofold use of the law is often skewed by a "heroic" or "romanticized" view of Luther that exaggerates the innovative character of his theology and underestimates his debt to earlier theologians.

Context is also important for Engelbrecht when he examines Luther's own writings across the span of his ministry. He acknowledges that while Luther at times spoke of a threefold use of the law, elsewhere he wrote only of two uses. Defending Luther's consistency, Engelbrecht notes that he tended to emphasize different themes depending upon the occasion and the pressing issues of the day. Thus, for example, he argues that Luther's positive remarks about the threefold use in his lectures on 1 Timothy (1528) followed shortly after his friend John Agricola promoted antinomian teaching, while his strong argument for a twofold use in his 1531 Galatians lectures was written in the wake of Roman theologian John Eck's refutation of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, prompting Luther to be especially keen to defend the view that law-keeping did not contribute at all to justification.

After extensive discussion of Luther, Engelbrecht turns to Melanchthon and then to Calvin (as well as to the Council of Trent, which he says virtually ignored the issue of the use of the law). He argues that Melanchthon was not the inventor of the threefold use of the law but did serve to "regularize" Luther's varied terminology. The chapter on Calvin is quite brief. Elsewhere in the book, Engelbrecht recognizes that Luther's and Calvin's views are more similar than Lutherans think, and that advocates of the twofold-use-only view have sometimes been driven by undue desire to differentiate Lutheran from Reformed theology. Yet in this chapter Engelbrecht concludes that, despite some similarities in their positions, Calvin ultimately differed significantly from Luther. The differences lie, he claims, in Calvin's emphasis upon the third use as the principal use of the law, over against Luther's emphasis upon the theological use as it drives Christians to repent daily from their sins. Engelbrecht also sees a difference in how Luther stresses the believer's spontaneous love to God and neighbor through the Spirit, while Calvin stresses how Christians excite themselves to obedience through the law. I find Engelbrecht's handling of Calvin less than satisfactory, but to his credit he acknowledges that there is much more to be explored with respect to the relationships between Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin on the use of the law.

Engelbrecht makes a robust and overall persuasive case for his claim. His careful examination of many relevant writings of Luther’as well as his attention to matters of context in patristic, medieval, and Reformation theology’present a formidable challenge to anyone wishing to defend the idea that Luther held only a twofold use of the law. And if his claim is correct, the thought that Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin stand together in affirming a threefold use of the law, despite differences in detail, offers some encouragement in the face of the continuing divisions among churches who claim the heritage of the Reformation.

Friday, June 28th 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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