Home » Extras » Book Reviews » Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia. by Timothy J. Wengert


Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia. by Timothy J. Wengert


Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia.

(Timothy J. Wengert. Grand Rapids: Baker Books,1997. Paperback Pp.231)


Martin Luther maintained that whether or not one is a theologian is announced by whether or not one can profoundly distinguish law and gospel. In a book that evinces a perceptive reading of history, expertise in the subtleties of Reformation theology, and an ability to discern precisely where and why the gospel may be at risk, Wengert acquaints readers with the relation of law to gospel in two of Luther’s theological sons. He probes chiefly Melanchthon’s commentary on Colossians (in its three editions of 1527, 1528 and 1534), noting the subtle changes Melanchthon made as he interacted with theological publications and correspondence generated by developments in church, princedom and empire. The controversy — is poenitentia to be associated with law (Melanchthon) or with gospel (Agricola) — was the occasion of the first assault Melanchthon sustained from within the Wittenberg “family.” The outcome was plain: Lutheran theology deemed Melanchthon’s conclusions normative, and thereafter repudiated Agricola’s position as sub-evangelical in that it failed to honour a crucial aspect of the Word.

Wengert leaves untranslated both poenitentia and its German equivalent, Busse, on the grounds that the word can mean “repentance,” “penitence” or “penance” (the verbal form poenitentiam agite or tut Busse yielding “repent,” “be penitent” or “do penance”), the nuances here having everything to do with the controversy then and the reader’s assessment of the matter now.

It is in light of the above that each disputant’s characteristic dread must be understood. Melanchthon feared lawlessness and a faith that substituted one’s inner comfort and security for trust in God’s forgiveness through Christ’s sacrifice extra nos; Agricola feared a return to the rules and regulations of Rome. In this regard Agricola eliminated all consideration of law from the Christian life, denouncing Francis, Dominic, Bernard, the Fathers who upheld good works, and even the Council of Nicaea. Deploying an inaccurate (because non-Biblical) analogy, he maintained that faith can live without works just as the soul can live without the body. Christians, needing no law, travel a Mittelstrassen, free from good and evil works alike. Evil works do not deny their righteousness; good works do not attest it. Since the law’s accusation leads only to resentment and anger, never to confession and faith, the gospel alone highlights sin, magnifies grace and induces poenitentia. Christians are free from the law without qualification.

Unlike other Wittenberg theologians, Agricola began not with the distinction between law and gospel but with the Christian’s self-understanding: we are born children of Adam and therefore of wrath; by the promise of Abraham (i.e., the gospel) we are brought forth children of God. God gave the law to render us aware that he is not unmindful of us. When sinners hear the law, however, they are so thoroughly terrified that they attempt to divest themselves of its yoke even as they blame God for their predicament. Largely ignoring Melanchthon’s insistence on the first “use” of the law (to restrain civil disorder), and disagreeing with Melanchthon’s second (to direct the conscience-smitten to Christ), Agricola maintained that law-engendered terror simply drives people away from Christ. Only the gospel promises (including those found in the Old Testament) induce poenitentia. Poenitentia is therefore a mark of faith, not a mark of the person in the process of coming to faith.

As early as 1521 in his Loci Communes and 1525 in his commentary on Exodus Melanchthon had insisted the law to be essential: apart from it we lack necessary knowledge of our sinnership before God, are not impelled to seek help in God’s mercy, and cannot even truly hear the gospel. Agricola replied that humans have an aversion to anything that pains; the law can therefore arouse only hatred of it and of the law-giver himself, never yielding the slightest knowledge of sin.

The controversy, now at full flood, found its way into a plethora of catechetical materials. From 1522 to 1529 Wittenberg saw the production of sixty-two printings of thirteen different instructional booklets. Melanchthon, a prolific contributor, argued that the law-aroused conscience pleases God in that God never fails or forsakes any whom his law has terrified. Agricola replied in an idiosyncratic reading of Colossians 2: Paul says that Christians are to come to a knowledge of God’s great secret, Christ himself, and not be seduced by the face of an angel, pretty words, philosophy — or even God’s laws. Colossian 1:3-8, believers’ necessary fruit-bearing, he simply explained away.

The raging debate was taken up into the Visitation Articles of 1527 when all evangelical pastors were examined concerning their theological understanding; it became the substance of the two conferences in Torgau Castle in autumn of the same year. In it all Agricola insisted that God should be loved for his own sake and not as a provider of refuge. Melanchthon agreed, yet insisted that sinners before the holy God need a refuge; furthermore, since the “old” creature dogs even the “new” creature in Christ, sinners continue to need the law on their way to loving God for his own sake.

As the dispute over the law intensified Melanchthon came to see that his understanding of forensic justification required a third use of the law (his “third use” being subsequently taken up and elaborated hugely in the thought of Calvin and the Puritans after Calvin.) Believers whom the law has directed to Christ are not justified by the law but continue to need the law as the vehicle of their obedience on account of the imperfection that remains in them. From 1534, then, Melanchthon articulated that use of the law which forestalled the facile criticism that the Protestant Reformers, espousing forensic justification, eschewed good works. Believers’ good works please God in that God honours the aspiration wherewith believers express their desire to obey him and their gratitude to him. Unquestionably Agricola’s consistent undervaluation of the Decalogue stimulated Melanchthon in his articulation of the relation of law both to the inception of faith and to the expression of faith.

In view of Karl Barth’s “Gospel/Law” reversal of Lutheranism’s “Law/Gospel” and current Lutherans’ continuing disagreement with him, not to mention a contemporary Christianity seemingly devoid of ethical rigour, the dispute that Wengert’s exemplary research and lucid explication illuminates is as germane today as it was contentious in the Sixteenth Century. Melanchthon’s uncompromising “Where there is no fear there is no faith” needs to be pondered as the relation of fear to faith is probed in every era.



Victor Shepherd Tyndale Seminary