“Two Kinds of Righteousness” – Theological Fad or Helpful Paradigm? News from the NID South Region Pastors Conference, by Pr. Rossow
I will be spending the next few days at the Northern Illinois District (NID) South region pastors conference where we are hearing Professor Joel Biermann from Concordia Seminary St. Louis (CSL) speak on the two kinds of righteousness. If you have never heard of the “two kinds of righteousness” (2KR) don’t worry, that may be a good thing. However, it is worth a bit of our discussion here in the website if for no other reason than to have an insight into the rise and fall of theological themes.
The two kinds of righteousness is the topic of a sermon by Martin Luther in 1518. It was seized upon by a few professors from the St. Louis seminary a few years ago as a potential new theological motif that could rival and maybe even supplant the law/gospel motif. As best I can tell, the seed for this this new impetus for the two kinds of righteousness was planted by Robert Kolb and watered by Chuck Arand, both CSL professors. The most complete presentation of it that I know of is in an article by Arand.
Luther’s point in the sermon is that the Bible speaks of two kinds of righteousness: 1) the righteousness of faith that is imputed to us on account of Christ and 2) the actual righteous acts that we do, that is our good works. This is similar to the distinction between justification and sanctification.
So what is all the fuss about? The fuss is over the fact that some of the professors in St. Louis trotted this theme out as a potential major theme to possibly take precedence over the motif of Law/Gospel. It was thought that an emphasis on two kinds of righteousness will allow us to more readily talk about good works and also open up more avenues of dialogue with the Reformed. (“Reformed” is a loose term for most non-Lutheran, non Pentecostal protestants.)
I am all in favor of academic pursuits and I think the two kinds of righteousness talk is interesting and can help us fine tune our understanding of the Gospel and the theological development of Luther. However, I think that the proposal that it is a full blown theological paradigm right up there with Law and Gospel is textually inaccurate and can even be harmful to Scriptural Lutheranism. There are helpful elements in the notion of the two kinds of righteousness. For instance, it can remind us to do more preaching and teaching of the ten commandments to help form our spirituality. Here are at least three reasons to be skeptical about this elevation of the two kinds of righteousness.
1) It is not an on-going theme in Luther. He preached the sermon in 1518 and after that did not make this a major theme. As a matter of fact he actually goes on much later in his Commentary on Galatians to talk about five or more kinds of righteousness. The massive index volume of the Luther’s Works (it is an entire volume) does not even have an entry for the “two kinds of righteousness.” That is about all you need to know about the subject. (The 2KR proponents would argue that it is a major theme that has been forgotten and they are merely reviving it which is why it does not show up in the index.)
2) An over emphasis on the two kinds of righteousness diminishes the prominence of the law/gospel dichotomy. In the law/gospel dichotomy, we hear the law to be convicted of our sin and we need the gospel to raise us to new life in Christ. It is that freedom from the law that is the fundamental thing of the Christian faith. Biermann and others are emphasizing the two kinds of righteousness in order to make the law and living in accordance with it the fundamental thing of the Christian faith. Adam and Eve before the fall did not live for the law, they lived with God who walked and talked with them. Yes there was law there in the garden but they did not even notice it. They lived perfectly until they fell into sin. Likewise in heaven we will not live for the law, we will live in the presence of Christ. We will be perfect but we will not even know that we are living in accordance with the law of God because we will be so smitten with seeing Christ face to face and our old sinful flesh will have already been destroyed once and for all. This side of heaven the Gospel is everything for us. Without the love of God in Christ we are lost and condemned creatures. Even once we get to heaven, the Gospel will be everything for us. We will live in the love of God. This does not abrogate the law. It still stands in its full force but it is not the fundamental thing for which we were created.
3) It is not the proper role of the pastor to teach the active righteousness of children, parenting, ruling, etc. This is the role of fathers, rulers, and others as a left hand kingdom activity. When the left hand kingdom becomes too prominent in the church we get sermon series on money-management, parenting skills, and good sex, all of which are favorites of the Evangelical crowd. The pastor’s role is to preach the law to repentance and the speak forgiveneess where there is repentance. Of course, there will be some teaching on being a good parent, ruler, etc. as Luther does in the Large Catechism but this does not rise to the level of new major Lutheran motif.
A brief blog like this is no place to capture the subtleties of this discussion. Please pardon me if this is not entirely clear. I am looking forward to hearing the presentation and if nothing else pressing comes up, I will update you on how the presentation unfolded.
Speaking of the conference, my circuit was recently moved into the South region and I could not be happier. Even though I am not a big fan of the two kinds of righteousness, it is very refreshing to see a pastors conference focus on doctrine. There are precious few conferences left who do this. Most spend their time on “practical” matters such as evangelism, small group theory, leadership, and the like.
On a totally different topic, if you haven’t signed in our mini petition speaking against these sorts of “practical” concerns dominating the synod, please take a moment and read my post from yesterday and if you are so moved, affix your name to it.