The Reformers’ Attitude to the Law of God -- By: Geoffrey H. Greenhough

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 39:1 (Fall 1976)
Article: The Reformers’ Attitude to the Law of God
Author: Geoffrey H. Greenhough

The Reformers’ Attitude to the Law of God

Geoffrey H. Greenhough

[This essay was awarded first prize in the Johnston Essay Competition conducted by the Protestant Reformation Society, England.]

The Subject of the Law of God figures very large in the writings of theologians in the Reformed tradition. Calvin wrote extensively on the Law in his Institutes; his contemporaries Bullinger and Hooper both devoted whole works to an exposition of the Ten Commandments, as did the English puritans Watson, Hopkins, and Andrewes; the value which these men saw in the Decalogue, as a concise summary of the Law, has been appreciated by Reformed scholars in later centuries, witness the writings of Charles Hodge and expositions of the Decalogue by Dale, Pink, and Wallace.

But recognizing the value of the Law of God was no innovation by the Reformers. Irenaeus had seen it; Augustine knew it well; the medieval schoolmen, of whom Aquinas was the best exponent, considered at length the application of the Law to the Christian. But it is to Martin Luther that the historian must turn for the first expression of the distinctive emphasis of the Reformation about this doctrine: to Luther one turns because he was first in time, and also because his works were widely read, and had a considerable effect on later Reformers; to Luther also because his writings have ever since been widely available, and so have continued to exercise an influence on Christian doctrine.

Within three years of its publication in 1522, Luther’s New Testament in German had been reprinted, prefaces and all, in many editions and had been circulated throughout Western Europe. Had not the printing press come into use some sixty years previously, Luther’s New Testament might have achieved but little. But the new ground that Luther struck, combined with the wide circulation that the presses gave it, meant that

Luther’s ideas were disseminated to a continent whose theologians had for the most part hardly begun to inquire beyond mystical medievalism.

In his prefaces, Luther set Law over against Gospel. To him, there were two kingdoms, the earthly, natural, civil kingdom and the kingdom of the heavenly, the gracious, and the redeemed. The heavenly kingdom was typified by grace, freedom, and love, in which the function of the law was to drive men in desperation to Christ, to seek salvation. The only righteousness of this kingdom was the righteousness of faith—”faith alone,” as in Luther’s embellishment of Ephesians 2:8. The earthly kingdom, on the other hand, enjoyed God’s providential care, for he was the Creator of it. To this kingdom b...

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