Forde on moral versus ceremonial law

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  1. Forde in “Fake Theology: Reflections on Antinomianism Past and Present” (1983):

“Covert antinomianism, seen in this light, comes in many different forms. Early in Christian history some tried to accommodate to law by altering the law’s content, arguing that while ceremonial law came to an end with Christ, the moral law did not. Nervousness about the effectiveness of the gospel in the confessional generation of Protestantism resulted in the positing of an added function of law: a ‘third use’ by the ‘reborn Christian.’ The gospel does make a difference, supposedly, but only such as to add to the function of the law.”[1]

  1. Forde in Christian Dogmatics (1984):

“Unable to rhyme Matt. 5:17-18 with Rom. 10:4, the dogmatic tradition has experienced nothing but trouble over the law…. Paul and Matthew are at irreconcilable odds. [The tradition tried to arrive at a compromise.] The result was the idea that in Christ the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament were abrogated….while the ‘moral’ law was not….But that is patent nonsense…. Neither Testament makes that kind of distinction between ceremonial and moral law.

“… The outcome of such confusion was, in general, that natural law [understood as an eternal order of law] became the arbiter. Natural law decides what is moral and what is not. But therewith the fate of the church’s understanding of law was sealed, as well as of its eschatological outlook. Natural law became the structural backbone of the theological system, displacing eschatology.”

“Once the eschatological outlook has been displaced by an eternal order of law, antinomianism is the attempt to remedy the situation with a false and realized eschatology.

“Once justification had again been reasserted in radical fashion, it was natural that heavy pressure would be brought to bear on the received understanding of law. John Agricola rightly sensed that justification by faith could not simply be combined with the older idea of law as an eternal order, still evident in some of Philip Melanchthon’s theological constructions.” [2]

  1. Forde, Presidential Address to the Luther Congress (1993):

Theologically, both before and after the Reformation, the most common move toward domesticating freedom has been the attempt to qualify the Pauline claim that Christ is the end of the law to those of faith. ‘Reason,’ as Luther would put it, simply cannot entertain such an idea, the conviction that in Christ the law comes to an end, that law is over and freedom begins. As we have, seen freedom as usually conceived needs law as the mediator of possibility. What shall we do if there is no law to tell us what to do? But is Paul then wrong in his claim? Theologians as usual, however, have found a way to have their cake and eat it, too. They made a distinction in the content of the law – something Paul never did – between ceremonial or ritual laws on the one hand and moral law on the other. Then they proceeded to say that Christ was the end of ceremonial law but not the moral law. Christ ended the necessity, that is, for sacrifice, circumcision, food and ritual regulations, etc., but not the demands of moral law (e.g., the Decalogue). Christ died, it seems, to save us from the liturgiologists! One might grant, of course, that this is no small accomplishment, but the price does seem a bit high!”[3]

  1. Forde in “Luther and the Usus Pauli ” (1993):

“Of late it seems that attention has shifted mostly to the question of Paul’s regard for the Law in relation to the Judaism of his day….Once the radicality of the Pauline gospel is jettisoned, one can only expect to see moves to enhance the status of the law. Where eschatology fails, one can only expect reversions to tropology….

“This too is an old, old, game. Nervous about Paul’s claim that Christ is the end of the law to faith, tropologists of all ages have tried to escape by making distinctions in the content of the law, something Paul never did. The favorite move has been to say that Christ is the end of the ritual or ceremonial law but not the moral law. But when that is done, the use is turned to its opposite. Two things happen. First, eschatology is the inevitable casualty. There is no new creation, there is only the moral tropology which persists, come hell or high water, or even the end of the world! Second, if Christ is the end of the ritual but not the moral law, then it is precisely Jewish particularity that becomes the object of theological attack, not the universal human predicament ‘under the law.’…

“…. For a proper eschatology, law belongs strictly to this age. It is to rule over the “flesh” and the affairs of this age. Christ and the gospel promise of the new age are to rule in the conscience….[4]


[1]Forde, “Fake Theology: Reflections on Antinomianism Past and Present,” dialog 22 (1983) 249. Bolding added here and hereafter for emphasis.

[2] Forde, “Justification and This World,” Christian Dogmatics (Philadelphia; Fortress, 1984) 2:447.

[3] Forde, “Called to Freedom.” Presidential Address to the International Congress for Luther Research, 1993. Reprinted in The Preached God. Lutheran Quarterly Books. Eds. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 2007) 254-69, here 259.

[4] Forde, “Luther and the Usus Pauli,” dialog 32:4 (1993) 277-78.

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