Is the Lutheran “Law-Gospel” Distinction Compatible with Catholic Theology?

A couple of years ago I mentioned my discovery and fascination with the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel. I really took a liking to it. Recently I’ve been exploring readings in Catholic theology and I found an essay where Cardinal Avery Dulles addressed the question of this post. The book is Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII and as the subtitle suggests it is the seventh volume in a series of books resulting from discussions between Lutherans and Catholics on some key points of doctrine. The following is some excerpts from Cardinal Dulles’ explanation. His essay is entitled “Justification in Contemporary Theology” (256-77)

“As several Catholic commentators have observed, the doctrine of law and gospel, as the twofold form of the word of God, stands at the heart of Luther’s entire system and provides the structural framework for his doctrine of justification.”

“The duality of law and grace has a good biblical foundation, especially in Paul. The law-gospel dialectic, proposed in an unacceptable form by Marcion, is detectable in certain passages of Origen and Augustine. Medieval scholastics such as Robert of Melun and Thomas Aquinas, in their treatises on the relationship of the old law to the new, foreshadowed some of Luther’s insights. Thus the law-gospel contrast, as Gottlieb Söhngen observed, has a Catholic past. Nevertheless it was not thematically taken up by Trent, nor has it been in modern Catholic systematics. Walter Kasper regards it as regrettable that law and gospel never became a major theme in Catholic theology.”

“Both Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism have sought to steer a middle course between antinomianism and legalism. According to each tradition, the law of God imposes a genuine obligation, but it must not be allowed to preclude the word of pardon and grace that comes to us in Christ without our deserving it and hence, in a certain sense, in spite of the law which condemns us.”

“A theology of law and gospel, therefore, can be, by Catholic standards, fully orthodox. In this perspective law might be understood not simply as a written code, but as anything that makes known to us our obligations before God and our guilt in violating his will. Gospel, on the other hand, would be the free word of pardon and grace that comes to us, finally and decisively, in Jesus Christ, the source of all salvation. The Malta report of 1971 showed how fruitfully Lutherans and Catholics can today collaborate in a joint statement on this theme.” (275-76)

Dulles notes that “there are certain ways of stating the law-gospel distinction that are unlikely to win acceptance from the Catholic side.” (276) This means it is vitally important for both sides to listen carefully to each other. Equally important is the need to articulate the definitions of the words we use so that we don’t end up speaking past each other or needlessly obfuscating the discussion.

I know there are Lutherans who don’t think these dialogues were all that fruitful and that it was Lutherans who ended up compromising their theology. I’ll leave that debate for another day. Here, at least, I was encouraged to see that some Catholics had anticipated Luther’s insights and that there is room for it within contemporary Catholic theology.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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