Theological Fragments: Eberhard Jüngel on law, gospel, and human identity

“The gospel restricts the function of the law to that of making demands upon people and to measuring their actions (but only their actions, and not their being) against the demands of the law.  But the law is not entitled to pass judgment upon the person, which means upon the being of the human agent.  For our acts, whether good or evil, cannot determine our being.  Only the one who determines being and non-being determines our being.  The gospel therefore contradicts the idea that, for example, on the basis of inhuman acts one can conclude that the subject of such acts is an inhuman person.  The category of ‘inhuman’ is itself an inhuman category, at least if our discernment operates within the horizon guided by the gospel.  For as forgiveness of sin, the gospel is the power which so addresses a human being that his or her person becomes distinguishable from his or her acts.  Preceding all human attempts at self-realization, the gospel is the promise that the human person is already a definitively approved person, namely by God.  All attempts to find out who or what we really are by identifying person with achievements or failures lead to an abuse of the law, to an – as it were – legalistic use of the law, to which the Christian faith opposes an evangelical use of the law.  For the legalistic use of the law makes the demands of the law into an excessive demand.  It makes an excessive demand on individuals if they are definitively to determine themselves through their acts.  The gospel does not contradict the law’s demand, but it certainly contradicts the excessive demand of the law by proclaiming the justification of sinners and thereby the distinction between person and work.”

“On Becoming Truly Human: The Significance of the Reformation Distinction between Person and Works for the Self-understanding of Modern Humanity,” Theological Essays, vol. II (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), p. 236.


5 thoughts on “Theological Fragments: Eberhard Jüngel on law, gospel, and human identity

  1. I find this fascinating because while at a Lutheran seminary I was taught that you cannot seperate the sin from the sinner, that they were inextricably intertwined. Indeed, that a person’s actions, to a certain extent, defined that person. It was said that the folksy statement, “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” is poor theology and patently incorrect. It would seem that Jungel would agree with the intent of that statement which implies that sin and sinner can be/must be seperated at least at the point of forgiveness and release.

    1. Todd

      Bryce, Jungel does not wish to separate action and person, but rather the doctrine of Justification demands that action and person be distinguished. Since in Justification our being is determined by God, it is not determined by our works. We wish to have our works determine our being; consequently the law which accuses our works also accuses our being. Yet this being is to be understood as un-being (non-existence, or nothingness).

      1. Todd,
        I think my use of the word “separate” was poorly chosen. Distinguished, as you use, is definitely a more salutary way of expressing what Jungel is getting at.

  2. Daniel Turner

    A person is not defined by their actions or utility. Human rights are not defined by what an individual does _for their society_; due to the content of the gospel (God the Son’s historic incarnation, cross, and resurrection) the human person is dignified regardless, all on account of what the savior has done _for them_. I really want to read more of this. Seeing that I don’t read German, does anyone have an opinion on the particular translation used? .

  3. Piotr Malysz

    If you’re interested in Jüngel, the best place to start is his volume on justification (called “Justification”), and the two volumes of his essays. He’s an exceedingly precise theologian, well versed in ancient and continental philosophy. His appropriation of the Lutheran tradition is both faithful and responsibly critical. Highly recommended!

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