by Denny Burk
Professor, Criswell College
Fuller, Daniel P. Gospel & Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980. Reprint, Pasadena, CA: Fuller Seminary Press, 1990. 217pp. $15.95.
Daniel P. Fuller’s Gospel & Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology stirred up a maelstrom of resistance from Protestant reviewers when it was first published in 1980. The response from Reformed reviewers was perhaps the most vehement. Covenant Theological Seminary’s (P.C.A.) journal Presbyterion published a duet of reviews criticizing Gospel & Law. These reviews were followed by a rejoinder from Fuller himself, which was in turn followed by more articles criticizing Fuller’s position. This exchange is emblematic of the backlash that ensued after the appearance of Gospel & Law. Even though Fuller’s book has become somewhat dated, his theological positions have gained steam in recent years through the efforts of his students. As Fuller and his controversial ideas continue to make an impact on evangelicalism, a fresh engagement of Gospel & Law is in order.
The purpose of Fuller’s Gospel & Law is to argue against the notion of antithesis between Law and Gospel and to make a case for the fundamental continuity between Gospel and Law. According to Fuller, both Dispensational and Reformed theology posit an unbiblical discontinuity between Gospel and Law. He states that, “although today’s dispensationalism explains the relationship between law and grace in wording that is different from that of covenant theology, there is not substantial difference in meaning. . .today’s Dispensationalism has reverted to a virtual covenant theology in the way it handles the law-gospel problem” (pp. 51, 54). Because both systems introduce this improper distinction between Law and Gospel, Fuller introduces an alternative way to approach this question. He writes, “there [can] no longer be any antithesis in biblical theology between the law and the gospel. I then had to accept the very drastic conclusion that the antithesis between law and gospel established by Luther, Calvin, and the covenant theologians could no longer stand up under the scrutiny of biblical theology” (p. xi).
Evaluation & Critique
Fuller’s stated purpose goes far beyond what can be accomplished in a single book of such a small size. One can imagine at least three books that would be needed to address adequately the subjects Fuller wants to engage: a critique of dispensationalism, a historical comparison of dispensationalism and covenant theology with reference to the law-gospel question, and a biblical and theological analysis of the Law-Gospel problem. Because Fuller addresses all of these issues in such short order, a certain superficiality is inevitable. Moreover, Fuller’s exposition of Paul’s view of the Gospel-Law “antithesis” is grounded in only two texts: Romans 10:5-8 and Galatians 3:1-12 (pp. 66-105). As Douglas Moo has pointed out, there are other key texts (2 Corinthians 3, Romans 7) which cast “serious doubt on the viability of Fuller’s thesis. Certainly a discerning reader must remain unconvinced of Fuller’s proposal as long as these texts remain unexplained.”
Fuller’s cursory historical analysis leaves much to be desired. When Fuller asserts the “inseparable connection between faith and resulting works,” he speaks as if his view is a new position (p. 113). Yet covenant theology has always maintained an inseparable connection between the two. The distinction between Law and Gospel in covenant theology is not absolute; the distinction only holds with reference to Justification. The Law cannot justify; only the Gospel offers righteousness. Yet with respect to sanctification, covenant theology has always insisted upon the “resulting works” that flow from faith. Thus The Westminster Confession (1646) states, “Faith. . .is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love” (Westminster Confession XI.2). One wonders if Fuller really understands the Reformed position on this issue. Also, Fuller often speaks of Calvin as if he is the representative of Covenant theology. However, this idea is a distorting oversimplification of the historical picture. As is widely known, “‘Covenant theology’ generally designates the distinctively covenantal theological structure developed by Cocceius, Witsius and others a century after Calvin, and this tradition differed from Calvin’s theology in some significant ways—not least on the relationship of law and gospel.” Does Fuller know that citing Calvin in this way can lead to mischaracterizations of Covenant theology?
Fuller’s book is riddled with unclear definitions of key terms. As Moo has criticized, “In a book devoted to Gospel and Law, one would expect some indication of the way in which these key terms are being used.” On a number of occasions, Fuller uses Gospel as an equivalent of grace (p. 51). Yet the New Testament does not equate these two terms. Given Fuller’s definition, one wonders how Fuller would explain the biblical injunction to “obey the Gospel” (2 Thes 1:8; 1 Pet 4:17). Fuller also fails to distinguish the way Paul uses the term law (nomos as the Mosaic administration) and the way law is commonly used in theological circles (law as everything that commands and condemns a person). These definitions are precisely what have emerged as major points of dispute in the wider debate. To the extent that Fuller’s thesis builds upon a definition of these terms, to that extent Fuller’s argument will not stand.
Fuller argues for a novel view of Galatians 3:10-12, “Galatians 3:10-12 affirms that the law and the gospel are one and the same, and the antithesis stated in Galatians 3:12 represents the Jewish misinterpretation of the law” (p. 103). Fuller’s exposition of Paul’s discussion of the law in Galatians three completely misunderstands the salvation-historical context of Paul’s remarks. Paul could not be clearer that the law that he is referring to is the Mosaic law. The law that Paul refers to “came four hundred and thirty years” after the promise to Abraham (Gal 3:17). So how could law in Galatians 3 be understood as anything but the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. One might argue that Paul’s opponents misunderstood the law (Gal 3:22), but this admission is a far cry from saying that law in Galatians three equals misunderstanding of the law.
Finally, a word needs to be said about the confessional implications of Fuller’s doctrine of Justification. Fuller claims that there are “several passages in Scripture which clearly indicate that the enjoyment of God’s gracious benefits depends on meeting certain conditions” (p. 108). He also states that some texts, “imply that grace is conditional” (p. 108). His reading of the biblical material causes a radical redefinition of the Protestant doctrine of justification. If Fuller is not clear on this point in Gospel & Law, he is very clear in subsequent debates about the book that “good works” are the “instrumental cause” of Justification. How can these statements be regarded as anything less than a renunciation of sola gratia and sola fide? The bottom line is that the only difference between Fuller’s view and the Roman Catholic view is that Fuller does not conceive a roll for the sacramental administration in the “good works” required by the believer. The present reviewer regards Fuller’s conclusions as antithetical to the Reformation.
Fuller’s critique of dispensationalism is incisive and helpful. However, this book has far more liabilities than strengths. The scope of the book is too broad for two-hundred and seventeen short pages. Fuller presents a rather superficial historical analysis. He gives inadequate definitions of the key terms law and gospel. The exegetical weaknesses of Galatians 3 (and other texts not criticized here) undermine his thesis. His denial of sola fide renders his solution unacceptable. While Gospel & Law makes for provocative and interesting reading, it does not evince an acceptable solution the Law-Gospel debate.
Norman Geisler, review of Gospel & Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, by Daniel P. Fuller, Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (1981): 272-73; John Reuman, review of Gospel & Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, by Daniel P. Fuller, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20 (1983): 289-90.
Anthony A. Hoekma may be an exception. Although critical, he seems to have missed Fuller’s point. In his review of Gospel & Law, he writes, “Fuller’s main thesis: Man is saved by faith, but that faith is to be evidenced in obedience to the law” (review of Gospel & Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, by Daniel P. Fuller, Calvin Theological Journal 17 : 112). As will be demonstrated below, the present reviewer thinks this remark represents a serious misunderstanding of Fuller’s proposal.
O. Palmer Robertson, review of Gospel & Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, by Daniel P. Fuller, Presbyterion 8 (1982): 84-91; Wilber Wallis, review of Gospel & Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, by Daniel P. Fuller, Presbyterion 8 (1982): 72-82.
Daniel P. Fuller, “A Response on the Subjects of Works and Grace,” Presbyterion 9 (1983): 72-79.
W. Robert Godfrey, “Back to Basics: A Response to the Robertson-Fuller Dialogue,” Presbyterion 9 (1983): 80-84; Meredith G. Kline, “Of Works and Grace,” Presbyterion 9 (1983): 85-92.
Scott J. Hafemann, The God of Promise and the Life of Faith: Understanding the Heart of the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001); John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1986; expanded edition, Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1996); John Piper, The Purifying Power of Living by Faith in Future Grace (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1995).
Much more could be said by way of summary, but due to space limitations it will be cut short.
The following critique will closely follow the outline of Douglas Moo’s critical remarks. In this writer’s opinion, his review is the most helpful evaluation of Gospel & Law (Douglas J. Moo, review of Gospel & Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, by Daniel P. Fuller, Trinity Journal 3 : 100-103).
Ibid, 100-101. While the present writer thinks the book could be divided into three books, Moo says the subject matter deserves at least two.
John H. Leith, ed. Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, 3rd edition (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1982), 207.
For this entire paragraph (Ibid, 101). Moo also rightly observes that, “the accusation that Calvin was guilty of the ‘Galatian heresy’ because he ‘could never predicate sola fide to sanctification’ (p. 117) is surely a misunderstanding of Calvin’s position, for he stressed that the gift of sanctification was bestowed with justification (Institutes, III.16.1) and viewed good works as the gift of God (III.15.20)” (Ibid).
Also, Fuller seems to think that the Judaizers’ definition of law dictated Paul’s usage of the term (p. 93). My question is this: Why should the interpreter regard the Judaizers’ interpretation of the law as normative? Is not their understanding what Paul seeks to confront? Much more needs to be said on the exegetical front, but space doesn’t permit.
Daniel P. Fuller, “A Response on the Subjects of Works and Grace,” 77, 79.