Gerhard Forde on Descriptive and Declarative Language

Shortly after seminary I began devouring the writings on Lutheran theologians on the topic of justification by faith. I was particularly intrigued by the Jenson-Lindbeck proposal that the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith” should be understood as a metalinguistic or metatheological rule governing churchly proclamation of the gospel.

But I still struggled with the question “But isn’t faith a condition of salvation?” So I wrote to the late Dr Gerhard Forde, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther-Northwestern Theological Seminary. He was kind enough to reply to my letter. I found it then, and find it still today, very helpful.

I thought I would publish this letter here. It is germane to the topic I am addressing in my present blog series on preaching the gospel. And I just want the letter to be preserved on the net. I suspect that others will find it as helpful as I did.


Dear Rev. Kimel,

Thank you for your letter of March 14. I write what I fear will be a rather hasty reply, but I hope it will be better than putting it off and perhaps neglecting it altogether as I fear I have done in the past, for which I must apologize!

Is not the act of belief in “some sense” a condition for salvation, at least in the sense that without it one will not be saved? When we arrive at that question, I think, we arrive at what might be called the limits of language in this matter, the point at which the language is likely to trick us if we are not careful. So we can get on with the problem, I believe, by making a couple of moves. The first would be to note carefully what the language is doing and perhaps make some helpful distinctions and the second would be to shift to more personal categories like the language of love. The distinction I like to make is one between descriptive language and declarative language. Descriptively it is quite true to say that unless you believe you shall not be saved. But that is just description of what is the case, and even though it is quite true in and of itself, it is not legitimate to jump immediately to the conclusion or the inference that belief is a condition for salvation, because the description says nothing about how such belief is to come about. Descriptive language is always tricky in theology especially and tricks us because it is so easy to translate it immediately into law language, conditional language. It is the unconditional language, the proclamation, that creates the belief, the faith, without which one cannot be saved. Faith is not a condition for salvation, it is salvation already, since it is created by the living address.

Perhaps this becomes more evident if we make the second move and shift to the more personal language of love, or the language of relationship between persons. Descriptively it is quite true to say that without love the relationship between, say, husband and wife, parent and child, is not likely to be a happy or perfect one. But if the relationship goes sour and I immediately translate the (quite true!) descriptive language into conditional language, I would then turn it into law, and turn on the alienated one with a demand. I would likely say, “Look here, you are supposed to love me.” Again, that is quite true, but of course it only makes matters worse. It creates the mistaken impression that love is a condition to be fulfilled, a means to an end which the alienated one is supposed to accomplish. But if I know the difference between law and gospel, I will immediately realize that the only proper move is to direct, unconditional declaration: “I love you! No ifs, ands, or buts!” I would realize that love is not a condition, that it cannot be commanded, it can only be given as best and as unconditionally as one can.

Love is not the condition for the relationship, it is the relationship. To assume it is a condition is to assume that I can, by some means or other, master the situation, indeed, master and control the other. But that is not the case. Hans Urs von Balthasar has some helpful things to say on this score (in Love Alone, The Way of Revelation, p. 44): “No I has the possibility or the right to master intellectually the Thou who encounters him in his own freedom, nor can he understand or deduce his attitude prior to their meeting. For love granted to me can only be understood as a miracle; I can never account for it, either empirically or transcendentally—not even from knowledge of our common human nature. A Thou meets me as an Other.” The moment I think that I have understood the love of another person for me—for instance, on the basis of laws or human nature or because of something in me—then this love is radically misused and inadequate, and there is no possibility of a response. True love is always incomprehensible, and only so is it gratuitous.

Perhaps that is why we say we simply “fall in love.”

Faith, belief, is like that. More deeply, according to Paul, it is like dying and being raised to new life. I simply cannot say to Our Lord that I have fulfilled “the conditions” so that I now am a proper candidate for salvation. Indeed, without faith, I am lost. That is a true description. But it is the declaration, the unconditional word that raises the dead!

So I always counsel my students that descriptive language is indeed true and useful, but they should beware of translating it into conditional language or law. Especially is this true for preaching—for if we find ourselves preaching a description as though it were gospel we will find ourselves in big trouble!

I hope this may be of some help to you and not muddy the waters too much! I don’t know how much counsel I can give you on books to read on the matter except to say that I draw most of my sustenance on such problems from Luther and writings about him. Perhaps most helpful on a secondary level would be Gerhard Ebeling’s little book on Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, from Fortress.

Grace and Peace!

Gerhard Forde

It’s hard to believe that my correspondence with Dr Forde dates back almost thirty years ago. I’m feeling old.

I do not recall corresponding with Dr Forde after this, and so I probably never thanked him for this fine letter. Let me do so now. Thank you, Gerhard.

This entry was posted in Grace, Justification & Theosis, Preaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Gerhard Forde on Descriptive and Declarative Language

  1. Andy says:

    “Faith is not a condition for salvation, it is salvation already.”

    This was Calvin’s insight as well, was it not?


  2. this stuff gives me headaches sometimes haha. I have to soak it all in over time I think.


Comments are closed.