Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Basic Structure of Luther's Thought.

Writing this piece on Luther's view of Judaism and Islam has given me new appreciation for Oswald Bayer's thesis that the basic structure of Luther's thought is not law/gospel or the theology of cross. All of these are true and important elements in his thinking, but they are not the deep structure. Rather, it is the orders of creation- the Church, the Family and the State as the contexts of God's interaction with the created order.

This is an important insight and I think that we would have avoided many problems in 20th century Lutheranism if this fact was recognized.

This also helps us make sense of the connection between the doctrine of creation and the gospel. The gospel basically defined the order of the Church from Genesis 3:15 onward. Attacking the gospel then (as Luther believed that the Papacy, Islam, Judaism, Anabaptism, Antitrinitarianism, the the Peasant who revolted were doing) was then also an attack on creation. It meant that the Devil was at work and God was holding him back until the final apocalyptic break wherein these orders would no longer function and Christ would finally return in glory.

I think that the last point is important to make because their has been something an abiguity in Lutheranism in the 19th and 20th century about the doctrine of creation. Part of the trend is to denigrate creation by identifying it with the old realm of law and therefore saying "well it's for the time being, we have to put up with it, but those who have the gospel have done away with partially." This is the attitude of people like Ed Schroeder and some of the Seminex people. It is also the attitude of much of the ELCA hierarchy who thinks that they are following Luther. Those who have the gospel, in this thinking, have transcended creation and law, thereby making the order that God has established irrelevant.

The point is though, that the gospel re-affirms creation. The gospel is part of God's establishment of creation, along with the law. An attack on creation by the forces of darkness is also an attack on the gospel, and vice versa. Any attempt to change God's order (as we have seen in the last few years) is an attack on God and is demonic. The old Luther's thinking, as hateful and bombastic as it unfortunately could become, actually has much to offer us on these points. When he worries about the overturnig of creation by demonic forces, we see the same thing today.


  1. Just wondering--do you think it's a good thing for a theology to have a "basic structure"? Sometimes I wonder whether constructing a "basic structure" is just latent reductionism.

  2. Harold Ristau has written a PhD thesis on precisely this topic, Jack. I had the opportunity to download his thesis, courtesy of UMI ProQuest via my university's e-library.

    In light of the popularity of Reformed worldviews which are unbiblical and unReformational such as Kuyper's, Christian Reconstruction, etc. I would further clarify my thought on this: Can we say that the gospel not only ushers in the new creation, *but* also at the same time, *preserves* the old creation?

  3. Phil- it depends. That is to say, if one chooses a part of someone's thought that is very small and try to fit everything into it, then this can become a large problem. That is generally what I am critical of with regard to earlier Luther scholars who tried to interpret Luther from the perspective of theology of the cross or law/gospel. These things represent portions of Luther's thought that fit into the larger structure of the three orders. In fact, when you look at things from law/gospel or theology of the cross, then social and political structures in Luther's thought become an after thought. The three orders though is able to encompass all of his thinking and also I think makes him a more coherent thinker in that it re-centers the place of gravity of his apocalyptic worldview.

  4. In response to the second comment, I think that we could say that the gospel renews and fulfills the old creation.

  5. So much of our understanding of two kingdom theology is simply warmed over American Church- State seperationism. Since this is not the system that Luther actually set up in Germany we are probably misinterpreting two kingdom thought. It might mean something compleatly different in the context of the orders of creation. One more thought in the back of my mind I remember some distancing away from the orders of creation concept in the second half of the twentieth century because some people felt this was used to support the Third Reich. Is my memory sound on this point?

  6. The two kingdoms is usually blamed for the third reich, though its a bit of a stretch I think. Some people's interpretation of the doctrine seems to have contributed, like that of Christopher Luthardt, who move or less thought it gave a blank check to the state to do whatever it wanted. Elert added "volk" and "nation" onto the orders. He also said that the state as an instrument of God's order had the right to exclude non-Aryans from public ministry. He and Althaus wrote in the same paper said that they thought it was a bad idea though and they retracted their ideas within a few years. Elert has an unfortunate reputation as having been a Nazi sympathizer, though this is false. Documents that have come to light since the early 90s prove that when he was in charge of Erlangen, he was actually undermining the Nazies every step of the way. Nevertheless, he publically played nice with them.

    In any case, the two kingdom is something of a theological construction on Luther's thought. The orders are more central and are explicit in his thinking. Furthermore, they cannot be thought of as allowing for Nazism. They merely explain the universal estates that form the context of human life.

  7. Could you point me to some texts in the American Edition (the most readily available to me) where Luther discusses the idea of orders of creation? I'd like to read up on it but have to admit that it's not as familiar to me as the theology of the cross or two kinds of righteousness concepts. I also very much appreciated your extended discussions of Elert, Forde, and some of the other ELCA theologians on Pr. Weedon's blog; it was all very helpful to me. Thanks in advance,


  8. Jennifer and Adam. Thanks. I'm pleased that you enjoyed the discussion on Elert.

    Read the first volume of the American edition, that is Genesis 1-5. There's plenty of discussion of it there. Interesting stuff.

    Also, for an extended discussion of the orders and the debate going on in the ELCA- I would point you to my article "The ELCA, Homosexuality and the Orders of Creation." Its in the Reformation 2005 issue of LOGIA- entitled "Chicago and Wittenberg."

  9. Do you see the orders of creation as suggesting a different relationship between church and state then we have in American church state seperationism?

  10. Sort of. The estate of the Church is created before the Fall, according to Luther, by the giving of the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This was meant as an act of worship. Adam would have gone to the tree every Sabbath and preached on the command. Then they would have eaten from the tree of life like they were having communion.
    The estate of the state only comes after the Fall. This means that the Church and the family, which are established by the God before the Fall are the primary realities and the state is only a necessary evil meant to preserve both.

    In American-Church state relations, the goal of the state is not explicitly to preserve the Church, since Church is not viewed as an estate, but rather as an private feeling or belief system which people can cultivate in their private time or not.

    Nevertheless, I don't think that the American concept of the wall of separation between Church and state necessrily is incompatible with Luther on this point. It's just that the founding Fathers had a deficient concept of Christianity. Though this is not uncommon in America.