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«Ordnung in Gemeinschaft»

A Critical Appraisal of the Erlangen Contribution to the Orders of Creation


Nathan Howard Yoder

The Lutheran doctrine of the orders of creation specifies fundamental forms of human community. Grounded in God’s structuring of the universe, these institutions acquire their expression in human history. Although they are fallen and distorted under sin, they remain God’s good creation. Illumined by the witness of Scripture, their ontology exists independently of ideological conceit.

The tradition is a specifically Lutheran consideration of natural law theory and plays an important role in two-kingdoms theology and the law/gospel dialectic. Historically, the doctrine has suffered significant abuse, specifically with the extra-scriptural elevation of Volk and race as inviolable institutions in support of Nazi ideology. Consequently, many have dismissed the doctrine as a static worldview that disallows critique of the status quo. In its orthodox biblical formulation, however, the doctrine remains a powerful safeguard against what Walter Künneth calls "the ideological alienation of the gospel" that invokes the name of Christ to justify sinful desire.

Nathan Howard Yoder evaluates the variant orders of creation models of the Erlangen theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Concentrating specifically on the work of Paul Althaus, Werner Elert, and Walter Künneth, he lifts up Künneth’s christological/trinitarian focus and appeal to sola scriptura as essential correctives to the tradition. He makes the case that the doctrine remains imperative to moral theology, specifically in the Church’s efforts against the rampant antinomianism of the postmodern era.

This book will serve well as a reference for graduate and post-graduate level courses in systematic theology, Christian ethics/moral theology, and the Lutheran Confessions.

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Summary and Concluding Observations


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From the century-long discussion on the Erlangen campus recounted and analyzed above, we who stand in the Lutheran tradition have inherited a theological symphony exploring “one of the deepest mysteries of being,”1 the story of divine providence illustrated in Scripture of the creation, preservation, and final fulfillment of human life in community. The Erlangen tradition of the orders of creation built on itself in a near-Hegelian fashion, the voices of the past correcting and amending the present and vice-versa in sharp point and counterpoint as weaknesses and strengths emerged to the fore. As Carl Braaten explained, the subject of this conversation is fundamentally necessary for the church. It defines the secular order as the “kingdom of the left,” the realm of human moral responsibility under both law and the new commandment of agape in Christ, thereby guarding against the legalization of the gospel of salvation.2

The discordant strain in the tradition centers on its elevation of perceived “reality” in the Christian ethos. This principle holds that the essence (Wesen) of an order is categorically intelligible by reason and experience and conveys the unambiguous and immutable will of God. Human ideology thereby enters into Christian ethics under the disguise of theological legitimacy. Barth warned against this principle as a heretical compromise of Christian discipleship in obedience to ← 215 | 216 → the Word. “If God be not still God in his Law, then it and he have become only too similar to many other laws and many...

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