I’ve been critical of the First Things crowd like Matthew Schmitz and Sohrab Ahmari and their Trad Cath version of “post-liberalism.”
I was pleasantly surprised though this morning to find this old essay from thirty years ago by Carl E. Braaten, a leading American Lutheran theologian, which brings up the work of the 19th century German Lutheran conservative theologian Adolf von Harless and his work on the orders of creation. I’m currently reading his book A System of Christian Ethics.
“The intent of this essay is a rehabilitation of the Lutheran idea of the “orders of creation.” That might seem to many an impossible task, something like trying to raise the Titanic. It is certainly a dangerous task, because it draws one into an area of Lutheran theological ethics that some German Lutherans under Hitler managed to give a bad reputation and that Karl Barth in fact identified as the rotten core of the Deutsche Christen ideology. It must be fully acknowledged that the idea of the orders of creation played into the hands of the Nazi ideology of Blut und Boden. But the misuse of a Christian belief is insufficient cause to dispense with it. It is difficult to think of any Christian doctrine that has not at some time been subject to misuse. The Fascists of Spain had a fighter plane that bore the insignia “Christ the King.” If misuse were the criterion of elimination, the whole of Christian dogmatics would have to be abolished.
My purpose is to show how the doctrine of the orders of creation can be revised and why in fact it is necessary to do so. After some preliminary discussion, I will provide a brief sketch of such a revised theology of orders and, finally, offer some observations on the application of that theology to current discussions of the role of the church in society.
The Dutch theologian A. A. van Ruler said in one of his books that sex, politics, and religion are the only subjects worth talking about. Martin Luther would have agreed, for these concerns happen to coincide with Luther’s own threefold division of the orders: status economicus, status politicus, and status ecclesiasticus. Luther collapsed sexual identity and family status into the economic order because the household in the broadest sense was the basic sphere in which people secured all the necessities of livelihood. Whether or not Luther ever explicitly referred to orders of creation (Schopfungsordnungen), he did use a number of related terms, such as ordo, ordo divina, ordo naturalis, ordinatio, ordinatio divina, creatura dei, weltliches Regiment, potestas ordinata, and others. It is clear in any case that those Lutherans who developed an explicit theology of the orders of creation self-consciously drew their basic ideas from Luther.
The modern form of the doctrine of the orders of creation goes back to nineteenth-century German Lutheranism. Adolf von Harless is usually credited with a reaffirmation of a theology of orders, speaking at first not of the orders of creation but of the orders of the Creator. The point of this doctrine is to affirm that Christians, like all other human beings, exist in a framework of universal orders that are there prior to and apart from belief in Christ or membership in the church. In this view, God has placed all human beings in particular structures of life such as nationality, race, sexual identity, family, work, or government that in some form or other are simply givens of creaturely existence. The law and commandments of God are revealed through these common created structures of existence and function apart from and in tension with the special revelation of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This means that there is a double revelation of God, and this duality permeates the whole system of theological categories and lies at the base of the familiar distinctions between God hidden and revealed (deus absconditus et deus revelatus), creation and redemption, law and gospel, the two kingdoms, and so on. …
We are mired in a moral marshland; we have no firm ground under our feet. Having wallowed in this swamp long enough, it may be time to look back to the sturdier traditions of the Lutheran heritage and, rather than condemn or forget them, seek to recuperate and revise them. Thus the following brief sketch of a theology of the orders of creation. …
We may begin with a definition. The orders of creation are the common structures of human existence, the indispensable conditions of the possibility of social life. Through these structures human beings are bound to each other in various relationships and mutual service. Luther said: “You will always be in a station. You are either a husband, wife, son, daughter, servant, or maid. . . . Saint Peter says that the graces and gifts of God are not all of one kind, but various. And each one is to realize what his own are and use them so that he may be of use to others. What a fine thing it would be if everyone took care of his own, while at the same time thereby serving his neighbor. So they would journey amicably together on the right road to heaven.
The orders of creation are givens that can be experienced and recognized by common human reason apart from faith and theology. So Luther could say: “God does not have to have Christians as magistrates; it is not necessary, therefore, that the ruler be a saint; he does not need to be a Christian in order to rule, it is sufficient that he possess reason.” Everyone participates in some way in the political, economic, and familial systems of society and is called upon to contribute to each of them in the service of others.
Those who believe in God acknowledge the common structures of human existence as the creation of God. Reason can discern the orders; only faith can read them as the creation of God. Faith is the presupposition of a theology of the orders of creation. By faith Christians confess “that God has created me and all that exists,” which is something quite different than claiming to know that once upon a time in the far distant past God created the very same structures in which people now participate. The confession of creation must be set free from its bondage to the myth of protological beginnings if that means the reading of the first eleven chapters of Genesis in a literal-historical manner. ”
Martin Luther himself believed in the orders of creation – state, work and church – which he identified as the structures through which God governs the world. Adolf von Harless identified the principal orders of creation as marriage, family, nation, state, race and economy.
I’ve also been reading up on the history of Lutheran Northern Europe between the time of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Unlike in the Dutch and Anglo world where Calvinism failed to consolidate its control over England and the Netherlands resulting in religious tolerance, Lutheranism developed a close relationship with the state in Germany and Scandinavia.