Review: Gospel and Law – Contrast or Continuum?

The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology by Daniel Fuller

stimulating, provocative… heretical? (it’s complicated)

I finished this book a month ago, and started reading reviews. I was really excited about what I had read; it was indeed “stimulating and provocative,” but all of a sudden I found myself in the middle of controversy: Norman Shepherd, Federal Vision, New Perspective, N.T. Wright, and accusations of “heresy” and “denying the reformation” were flying. The reformed guys, especially Westminster, came out emphatically against it. What a quagmire!

I listened to John Piper sermons: he wrote the blurb on the back of G&L back in 1980 and many of his sermons from the early 80’s echo Fullerisms, but in the early 2000’s he started emphatically teaching the reformation doctrine of Justification, and the imputed righteousness of Christ.  He is quite emphatic at times, and even received some pushback from Fuller himself. I read Jonathan Edwards’s Justification by Faith Alone, who Piper and Fuller both refer to heavily.

Gospel and Law has two main parts: a critique of Dispensationalism takes up 3/4 of the book (and he lumps covenant theology into this critique – they didn’t like that), and the middle 1/4 of the book is a single chapter entitled “Paul’s View of the Law,” that sets forth Fuller’s proposed answer to the hermeneutical problem.

As a critique of dispensationalism, this book is devastating. Fuller cites extensively from original sources: the Scofield Reference Bible, the New SRB, Darby, Chafer, and the (then) modern form in Ryrie and Walvoord. He evaluates its theology in general, its history, and in the last part of the book deals specifically with its view of the Abrahamic Covenant, The Kingdom of God, and the “Parenthesis” Church. He shows with example after example how dispensationalism “compartmentalizes Scripture,” and does so with direct quotes throughout.

The controversy is surrounding his own positive thesis regarding “gospel and law.” Here he makes provocative statements like “law and gospel are one and the same,” (p. 103) and fleshes out his thesis that, “the enjoyment of grace is dependent on faith and good works.” There is a very conspicuous AND there, especially when the doctrine of justification by faith alone is a cherished and essential truth. He seeks to explain, though, “that this conditionality of grace does not therefore open the door to human endeavor in which a man may boast.” Whether he succeeds in this, or whether it is even possible, will determine whether you love it, find it “deeply flawed” or burn it as “heretical.”

For me, this book has had several notable effects. One has been a clearing away of faulty hermeneutics and exposure of how a systems of interpretation (dispensationalism in particular) can clash with what the Biblical data. It has cleared out any last vestiges of “compartmentalization” I may have had. It has confirmed for me that I am much more inclined toward “Biblical Theology” than “Systematic.” I’m not precisely sure yet what my hermeneutic is, but this has confirmed for me even more what it is not: dispensational or covenant. It has caused me to read my Bible with a fresh attention to what it actually says, and a renewed vigilance not to cram texts into a system. It has inspired much fresh thinking about the nature of the law of God, particularly the gracious aspects of it. There are elements of both continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenants, and this has shone light on some significant continuities.

I personally don’t think I can go all the way with Fuller. He has set up his own false dichotomy: “contrast or continuum?” and emphasized continuity to the exclusion of discontinuity.  This results in extreme statements like “law and gospel are one and the same.” While his view of justification is stimulating, I think in the end there are some serious problems with it, specifically regarding the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and that very looming “AND.”

I recommend this book highly, yet with a serious caveat. It will inspire some very good thinking, but it must be read carefully, and not just swallowed whole. Be prepared for a big study of a big subject if you want to bite this off.

The best review I’ve found so far is Douglas Moo’s, from the Trinity Journal 3, 1982, if you can track it down.

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One thought on “Review: Gospel and Law – Contrast or Continuum?

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