Five Views on Law and Gospel (Book Review)

Five Views on Law and Gospel

My research for my seminary integrative paper has begun.  I plan on comparing the views of Reformed theologians Meredith G. Kline and Geerhardus Vos on the Mosaic Law.  So the first thing I decided to read was a summary of evangelical views of how biblical law and gospel relate to each other.  The book is called Five Views of Law and Gospel (previously titled “The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian”) and is in Zondervan’s Counterpoints series.  The five contributing authors are (from the back cover):

Willem A VanGemeren, presenting a non-theonomic Reformed view of the use of the law.

Greg L. Bahnsen, argues for a theonomic Reformed approach.

Walter C. Kaiser Jr., maintains that the weightier issues of the Law of Moses are binding on believers today.

Wayne G. Strickland, advocates the dispensational view.

Douglas J. Moo, proposes a modified Lutheran approach with a clear antithesis between the Law and the Gospel.

What I appreciate about the format of the books in the Counterpoint series is that each author has about the same amount of space to present his view and to critique the views of the other writers.  This makes the books feel like judiciously moderated debates for the reader.  The format is also ideal for encouraging the authors to package their position clearly, cogently, and succinctly.  The reader finishes a book with a good understanding of the various strengths and weaknesses of the various viewpoints.

This book on Law and Gospel is no disappointment, although unfortunately it is not as accessible to the uninitiated.  I first began reading it just before enrolling in seminary, got about 50 pages into VanGemeren’s essay, and put it down with my head spinning.  I simply didn’t have the theological categories in my mind to comprehend the nuances of the arguments.  But with a few years of theological instruction behind me, I started the book again and found it incredibly stimulating and informative.

What I found is that every author basically falls into 2 categories.  Either the OT Mosaic Law is in some form of continuity or discontinuity with the fullness of the Gospel preached in the NT by Jesus and his apostles.  It was surprising to find that the distinction between Israel and the Church is not determinative of the discontinuity position (Kaiser and Strickland agree on the extreme importance of the Israel/Church hermeneutical distinction, but only Strickland is a dispensationalist).  Moreover, I was also surprised that the 2 authors who employ the redemptive historical hermeneutic (of the Reformed flavor) come down on opposite sides of the Law/Gospel contrast (VanGemeren favors continuity; Moo favors discontinuity).

Each author critiqued the others with Christian charity, but showed the most respect to opponents who shared their own hermeneutical principle (either the Israel/Church distinction or the Reformed redemptive historical model).  I got the sense that Strickland’s position was most severely critiqued, he being the only dispensational author in the book (although Moo criticism of him was soft in comparison to the others).  Bahnsen was the harshest critic of his opponents.  In some instances he seems a little too harsh and nit-picky, when he engaged in parsing words (“a” vs. “the” dispensational view of Strickland) and over-analyzing the consistency of an author’s sentences.  He rarely seemed to give the others the benefit of the doubt as to the internal coherency of their position.  Whenever he became overly critical I pictured him scoring debate “points” but not swaying the reader.

So the big question is, which position ended up appearing the most consistent with the biblical model of the relationship between Law and Gospel?  Although every position has strengths and poses penetrating questions and corrections for others, it seems to me that VanGemeren and Moo rise to the top as the closest to the truth.  VanGemeren is very close to how I understand Vos to be on the Mosaic Law.  In fact, his method is to build on the insights of Vos to construct a more thorough model of the Law-Gospel relation.  Moo’s essay is very close to how I understand Kline to be on the Mosaic Law.  As my research continues and I begin reading both Vos and Kline, this suspicion may prove accurate.

Both see the Law of God as binding on the Christian, but VanGemeren’s Reformed approach equates the Law of God for the NT era as the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments.  This interpretation divides the Mosaic Law into three functional aspects: (1) ceremonial or cultic, (2) civic or judicial, and (3) moral.  The majority view in the Reformed tradition has been that the first two aspects of the Law have been abrogated by Christ’s person and work and are no longer directly binding on the NT believer, while the moral law is still directly binding on all as it reveals the eternal standard of God’s righteous requirements of his people.  On the other hand, Moo’s approach distinguishes the Law of God for the NT era from the Law of God as revealed in the Ten Commandments of the old covenant.  As Moo sees it, the Ten Commandments were inseparably bound up and with the Mosaic covenant and economy of the OT era, and thus have passed away in glory with the coming of the new covenant in Christ.  But he sees the new covenant as containing a code of law called the Law of Christ, which consists of the moral commands stipulated by Jesus as contained in the Gospels and Epistles, and the guiding of the Holy Spirit in each believer’s life into the will of God for particular circumstances.  Moo admits that this new covenant Law of Christ has many similarities to the moral law as codified in the old covenant, but insists that new covenant commands are directly applicable and binding on NT believers, while the old covenant commands may only be indirectly binding on NT believers, and only when they are filtered through the revelation of Christ in the NT.  If your head is spinning trying to comprehend these two nuances, a simple way to remember their differences that VanGemeren would say the moral law in the OT is still binding on the NT believer unless a command is explicitly repealed in the NT, while Moo says the moral law in the OT is no longer binding for the Christian today unless a command is explicitly reaffirmed in the NT.  Additionally, as to each moral requirement in the Ten Commandments, VanGemeren sees all as still binding, while Moo sees all but the Sabbath command (the fourth commandment) as still binding.  This is important because their end results are quite similar; they just take radically different paths to their conclusions.

I’m thankful that this book provided me with several evangelical views of Law and Gospel, and that a counterpoint debate book format convinced me that studying Vos and Kline will lead me a little closer to the difficult to understand truth of the Bible’s Law-Gospel doctrine.  I’m looking for a firm conviction on this topic because it affects the way Christian ministers preach and conduct their ministries in the church.

If you are a Christian with some level of theological training, or if you are well-read in Christian hermeneutics or biblical law/covenants, I highly recommend this book to broaden your perspective on different views and to perhaps challenge you in your own conviction on God’s Law and the Gospel.

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3 Responses to Five Views on Law and Gospel (Book Review)

  1. John King says:

    Reading about the “modified Lutheran view” makes me wonder what is the “unmodified Lutheran view”.

  2. Jubilie Apin says:

    Yes,my understand of Law-Gospel realationship is being positively enhanced as I read this book. I found out that I am a mixture of ‘a reformed perspective’ and a dispensationalist!

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Five Views on Law and Gospel (Book Review) | D A N G I T B I L L ! -- Topsy.com

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