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.
Karl Barth radically rejected all these distinctions, positing instead a theology of the one Word of God from which all structures, orders, commandments, and ethical norms for Christian living in the world must be derived. One might call this the soteriological captivity of creation, because it succeeds in emptying the world of its own meaning as a realm of divine governance and human involvement prior to and apart from the biblical story of salvation culminating in Christ. I would argue that we need to break this one Word of God in two, restoring the validity of the distinction for the sake of the integrity of the gospel.
This issue is central to the definition of the role of the church in the world today. If, as the Barthians would have it, the world is void of God’s presence and activity apart from the gospel, it follows that Christians are called upon to fill the void. And that is no small job. In this view, the church bears the only Word of God there is, and this Word establishes the reality and meaning of everything going on in the world, its politics, economics, and cultural life. It is this view of things that accounts for the contemporary politicizing of Christian endeavor, with the churches exhausting themselves in trying to tell the world what to do, including issuing directives for social and political action. This might conceivably be a good thing if it worked, but it doesn’t. Worse still—and more to the point of my concern—the translation of the one Word of God into direct social and political terms has meant that the churches neglect the message for which they do have sole responsibility, that which constitutes their specific raison d’etre, and which no other agency in the world is called on or is competent to proclaim: the gospel of Holy Scripture which has the power to make people wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15).
The heyday of the neo-Lutheran theology of the orders of creation goes back to Germany in the 1930s. There began then an outpouring of books and articles on the subject by Werner Elert, Paul Althaus, Walther Kenneth, Friedrich Gogarten, and we may include Emil Brunner, who, though not a Lutheran, wrote several books on the orders of creation. About Brunner’s effort Karl Barth wrote, “I do not fully understand the intention and spirit of [his work]. . . . What I do not understand is from what source and in what way Brunner claims to know these orders. . . . We cannot help feeling that at the root of his conception of ‘orders’ there lies something akin to the familiar notion of a lex naturae which is immanent in reality and inscribed upon the heart of man, so that it is directly known to him. But does not this mean that there is not only a second (or first) revelation of God before and beside that of the Word of His grace, but also a second (or first) knowledge of God beside that of this Word of grace?”
Barth’s relentless attack on natural theology motivated his rejection of the orders of creation, because of its family resemblance to the idea of natural law. The family resemblance consists in the idea that people do not need to know Jesus Christ to have some knowledge of what is right and good through the law of creation and conscience, that is, by way of “the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). Yet for all the affinity between the Thomist-Aristotelian theory of natural law and the Lutheran theology of the orders of creation, we will need to observe the fundamental differences between them that Barth’s criticism blurs.
A rehabilitation of the “orders of creation” must take into account its weaknesses and the validity of many of the criticisms leveled against it. A major criticism is that the whole notion of orders suffers from a static picture of creation. These fundamental orders seem to have a supralapsarian essence outside of history, with all the markings of a mythological primeval time. This theology of orders fails to appreciate that we live inescapably in the changing structures of historical development. Thus Wolfhart Pannenberg rightly asks: “But are there really ordinances which constitute equally all forms of society that have developed in history, ordinances whose historical expressions are merely variants? Is not each concrete form of society thoroughly determined by its history?” Helmut Thielicke has taken this criticism seriously in his Theological Ethics, speaking of the various structures of our common life, such as the state, law, economics, etc., as “orders of history” rather than as “orders of creation,” and presenting them in an infralapsarian way as “orders of the divine patience, given because of our ‘hardness of heart’ (Matthew 19:8).”
The infusion of historical relativity into the orders can also break their linkage to an ethical conservatism that finds it necessary to stand against every revolutionary development, thus denying the freedom of God to do any new thing in the world. If the world is pictured not as an eternal cosmos but as an historical process, then the orders will not be placed in a timeless realm above and beyond history. Just as Lutheran theology criticized natural law on account of its abstract, formalistic, and unhistorical conception of human nature, so also the idea of a fixed constellation of permanent orders of life can be criticized as untrue to the dynamic character of historical development. Acknowledging the historicity of God’s commands to people in the common associations of life should discourage every ideological absolutization of transient structures of existence.
Furthermore, it is necessary to qualify the idea of the orders of creation by the recognition that the original creation has been distorted by the fall into a universal condition of rebellion against God’s design for the world, and that the Christian faith longs for the restoration and fulfillment of creation through the history of God’s redemption in Jesus Christ. For this reason, some Lutheran theologians prefer to speak of “orders of preservation,” taking into account what God is doing to sustain the world under the conditions of sin, even using means sin-laden themselves, such as war and capital punishment, to fight against still more serious attacks on the goodness of God’s creation. God’s preserving creativity is an expression of the continuing creativity of God until God’s final purpose for the world reaches its completion in the eschaton.
The Barthian attack on the orders of creation was so devastating that some Lutherans veered to the radical polar extreme of situation ethics. In the period after World War II, theology was awash in an existentialist deconstruction of ontology, ethical norms, fundamental principles, and traditional values, so much so that Christian moral instruction ceased almost entirely. The churches have not yet recovered from the abandonment of serious moral discourse. We have lost our way in a labyrinthine antinomianism that leaves it up to each individual to intuit his or her way out of moral dilemmas. In any ethical situation, Christians are told to rely on what the Spirit nudges them to do on the spur of the existential moment, which in practice often amounts to people doing pretty much what everybody else is doing. This approach to moral questions has now been adopted by the churches, so that eliciting sample opinions from a cross-section of the population becomes an avenue to the discovery of God’s will on any issue. The pluralism and relativism built into this sociological approach are the latest substitutes for the theology of law and the orders of creation that framed the ethical discussions of the church in the past. 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.
We may speak of the fundamental universal structures of life as orders of creation because God continues to create these possibilities of existence in spite of the fact that we live in a world of sin and death. The confession of Christians that we are creatures of God is coupled with the confession that we are the children of Adam and Eve, and therefore fallen and sinful members of the human race. We live in the tension between the dignity of creation and the disgrace of sin, between the joy of being God’s creatures and the shame of perverting this status. The orders of creation are subject to the conditions of sin and death; nevertheless they are still the object of God’s continuing and present act of creating, as Luther so clearly stressed. God did not create once upon a time and then let things run their course, as the deists maintained. For Christians, every act of preservation on this side of sin and death is still an act of ongoing creation. So we would argue that we have a right to speak of the orders of creation in the interim between the fall and the final consummation, with the proviso that there are no orders of creation that are not shot through with the powers of sin and death.
The orders of creation are the media through which the command of God addresses the conscience of all human beings. God speaks the law through the structures of creation, impinging on the human conscience. Spanning the entire spectrum of creation, whether in terms of sex, politics, or religion, Christians affirm that God is speaking through the law written on human hearts, with individual consciences picking up the signals, either accusing or excusing them, until that day when God will finally judge all things by the criterion of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:15–16). There are, for Christians, two steps here: God speaks the law through the ordinary things of daily life; but his extraordinary Word is spoken in the Endtime through Jesus Christ, who fulfills and transcends the law of creation.
Faith in Jesus Christ places all the orders of creation under the spotlight of the eschatological kingdom and rule of God. This means that the orders are relativized and subject to the conditions of historical life; they cannot evolve into a state of perfection, thus establishing the kingdom of God. There is no marrying or giving in marriage in the kingdom of God (Matt. 22:30). Nor is there need for law and force, for everything will give way to the service of love. In the Christian scheme, the orders correspond to this world of sin and death, and will cease when the kingdom comes. As such, they are provisional and penultimate. So Luther could say that the exercise of power by the authorities of law and government constitutes the “alien work” of God, not his “proper work.” They are the work of the “left hand of God.”
Just as the orders of creation cannot be equated with the kingdom of God, neither must they be separated and kept unrelated to the coming kingdom. Christians believe that God acts through the orders to preserve the world and history until the kingdom comes. Luther argued that the task of government was to keep the peace so that God could gather his people through the preaching of the gospel. That is the political function of the orders. The orders are also, in the Lutheran view, a school in which all citizens are educated to care for each other, to do their duties even against their egoistic drives, and to use their “liberty and ability to achieve civil righteousness,” as Article XVIII of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession puts it. This summons to civil righteousness may be called the pedagogical function of the orders. Such civil righteousness is not the same as spiritual righteousness, namely, the true pure love which only the Holy Spirit can work in human hearts against the impulses of the flesh. Between these two types of righteousness stands the radical event of conversion, the new birth, which no amount of good thinking, willing, or feeling can bring about. It is for Christians the miracle of grace, communicated thorough the Word in the power of the Spirit.
There has been a continuing debate in Lutheran theology about the so-called third use of the law, that is, as a positive guide to Christian behavior. However one may come down on that, I would agree with Paul Althaus that there is a third function of the orders in relation to the kingdom of God, and that is the symbolic function. The liberty, peace, and justice for which we strive in our worldly existence may be seen as parables of the kingdom. While they do not establish the kingdom, they may be seen as signs and anticipations of the eternal shalom for which the whole creation longs and waits.
God is the Lord of life and therefore sets limits to the demands that the orders place upon us. None of the orders may be so absolutized as to abolish the others. All the claims and commandments of the second table of the law (what we owe to each other) are limited by the freedom and sovereignty of God in the first table of the law (what we owe to God alone). Thus Jesus’ unsettling—and otherwise inexplicable—words: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). The law that is mediated through the orders is not unconditional. It is always subject to Peter’s principle: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). It is always a fine art to observe the proper dialectic between the first and the second tables of the law.
God continues to order the natural life of humanity by means of the concrete historical structures that impinge on our existence—the particular systems of government, economics, and family that frame our life. There is among the orders no ideal state, no ideal marriage, no ideal economic system, as though God’s Word should be equated with some abstract ideal structures of life. We are summoned in the Lutheran perspective to divine obedience and neighborly service within the framework of concrete human historical structures, as questionable and ambiguous as they always are. We cannot wait for the right time and place to obey God and serve our neighbors. This does not suggest an uncritical submission to the status quo. Every structure of life must be examined as to whether it measures up to God’s intention for it, whether in its current form it works for the common good in the service of justice, liberty, and community.
The concept of ambiguity is useful to express the idea that the orders of creation are good as created by God, and yet permeated by the law of sin and death. We live on this side of Eden, in a fallen world, in which demonic, destructive forces are intertwined with the structures of divine preservation. The same structures of life work both good and evil. Divine and demonic powers struggle for control; at times the battle seems to tilt in favor of the one side over the other. The history of theology is replete with denials of this hard truth of divine-demonic ambiguity. Types of monistic idealism reject the reality of the demonic; there is in such views no Satan. The evil that strikes us is not real; it is, as seen from a higher perspective, but one chord struck in the wonderful melody of life. Death is thus only a passing phase of the grand march of the Spirit in the unfolding epic of cosmic evolution. It is but a means to life. The dialectics of idealism denies the reality of sin and evil, the demonic and the satanic forces that penetrate all the structures of life. On the other hand, there are old and new forms of Manichaean dualism that surrender the structures of this life to the devil, and deny that those structures come from the benevolent hand of God. For people of this persuasion, the world is most assuredly going to hell in a handbasket. Against both the foregoing views, the truth is that life in all of its dimensions occurs under the law of ambiguity; we experience it as both blessing and curse, sometimes predominantly one more than the other, but never exclusively one without the other.
The ambiguity of life in the tension between the blessing of creation and the curse of death means that all of our actions participate in this ambiguity. We cannot obey God without at the same time giving the devil his due. It is not the case that the ambiguity lies merely on the subjective side, in the person as such. Luther stressed that the person is always a sinner, whose will is in bondage. But so are the structures as such in bondage, so that no matter what one does and however noble one’s intentions, there is something of evil in the result. That is the dreadful truth about our ambiguous existence. Luther saw the wrath of God at work in the fact that we as sinners cannot fulfill any of God’s commands without at the same time entrapping ourselves in sin. God’s wrath is poured out upon humanity in the fact that by the very zeal we exert to do our duty and excel in our vocation, we contribute to the dynamics of sin and death in the world. Order and chaos, good and evil, blessing and curse, moral man and immoral society remain so intermixed that those who look at reality unblinkingly may be tempted to doubt that God is Lord of this world and to sink into skepticism and nihilism.
For Lutheran Christians, such despair in face of the universal and radical human predicament can only be overcome through the gospel, which announces forgiveness of sins and redemption of life under the conditions of an ambiguous world chained by sin and death. The gospel proclaims the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, death, and the power of Satan, and inaugurates hope that ultimately and fundamentally God will establish his rule over all his enemies and ours. The gospel declares that we receive forgiveness under the conditions of life within the framework of the orders; it does not beckon us to forsake them and escape into a make-believe world of sinless perfectionism. That was the temptation of monasticism that Luther challenged.
The message of the gospel is not only forgiveness but also redemption from the power of death and the demonic forces at work in history. The crucified and risen Jesus Christ, Christians believe, has defeated Satan and death. Colossians 2:15 states, “He disarmed the principalities and powers and made public example of them, triumphing over them in him.” Christians affirm that the dynamics of death and the demonic powers have been defeated and put to death in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is the gospel—the Christ event. But this victory is not manifest in all reality. Death has been defeated—and still people die. We live between the times. In Christ the ambiguity of creation and the fall under the dominion of death and Satan has been overcome, but the rest of creation waits for the final victory until the eschaton.
The freedom of the Christian comes through faith in the victory of Jesus Christ. It is a participatory freedom. In the assurance of forgiveness the Christian is called to do battle against the forces of sin and death that effectively penetrate the orders of creation, and is free to continue to struggle and suffer within them, always seeking to do God’s will. Although only death will liberate us from sin, we are already free to fight against its effects in public and personal realms, in the continuing moral decisions of everyday life.
Those with limited tolerance for schematic arguments may find in the above but the dry bones of a dogmatic skeleton of abstract ideas. Its justification consists in whatever value it may have in laying foundations. Even then, most people are more interested in whether the house is fit to live in and how it is furnished than whether the foundations are solid. Let me then draw out some implications that follow from this understanding of the orders of creation with respect to the church in public life.
We do not live in a theocracy and so we cannot expect that God’s work and rule in the public orders of life will be mediated by a hierarchy of priests, preachers, or prelates. It is not conceivable that we will return to the society of ancient Israel, medieval Europe, Calvin’s Geneva, or modern Iran. So we cannot entertain the idea that God orders public life through laws and directives coming from organized religion or the institutional church. Nor do Christians understand Jesus Christ as some kind of Ayatollah, communicating a blueprint of an ideal society and calling upon his believers to make laws, pronounce judgment, and execute his will in the political, economic, and social spheres. For this reason also we have rejected the Barthian christocratic scheme, which starts from the one Word of God, Jesus Christ, then extends its reach centrifugally from the inside out, from the inner circle of believers to the wider human community. If the community of believers were to coincide with the community of citizens, that might be a plausible scheme. But when, as in our situation, there is no such coincidence, the believers’ vision of society must be imposed on the larger number of unbelievers through force, on the model of the inquisitors and the Hezbollah. The theocratic or the christocratic ways of representing the divine will for the public orders are both thoroughly reprehensible, though they are always temptations for true believers who deplore the secularization of life and wish to put God back into the “naked public square.” We must, therefore, oppose the current efforts to re-Christianize the public orders and to legislate the will of the churched upon the unchurched, as though Christians have a special revelation for the political and social conditions of life today.
It is for these reasons that Lutherans seem to me to be in an ideal position to deal with the challenges of a pluralistic secular society. The doctrine of the orders of creation goes hand in glove with the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms. In this view, the church and its members have a double identity. As members of the church, Christians are concerned with the gospel. But the God of the gospel is for them also the God of the law, at work in the secular realm where the churched and the unchurched share a common ground. This scheme allows that the rule of God in the public orders is not primarily in the hands of believers but is communicated to all persons through the natural orders and can be grasped through conscience and moral reason.
There is for Lutheran Christians no secular world in which God is dead; there is no empty world into which believers have to introduce the law of God for the first time. God is at work through his ongoing creativity and through the law that orders life in the world. The law is an instrument of divine activity and confronts all persons in their actual empirical existence. There is no sphere of life where God is not active through the law that impinges on the human conscience. God is universally present as the pressure that drives people to do justice even when they are not just, to earn a living for their family even when they are lazy, to give to others their due even though they are filled with selfish desires.
Life could not go on for a minute without the pressures which God exerts, whether they are recognized as such or not, in the life of every individual. Lutherans believe that we experience God’s law as the driving force behind the demands that human beings impose on each other as they live in community. The criterion that measures which demands are legitimate and have God as their anonymous author is available to all people in the ideal of justice.
And what is justice? The core of justice in all times and places is care for the neighbor. The force required to administer justice through law is the “strange work” of love (opus alienum) in public life. The whole law is summarized in the commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Therefore, a particular law is just when it functions in the care of human beings, suppressing evil deeds and rewarding the good.
Luther spoke of the orders of creation—family, state, work—as the masks of God (larvae dei), masks of the hidden living God. Gustaf Wingren speaks of the presence of God incognito as “the anonymous demand.” There is no life free of the pressures that God exerts, pressures arising from within the depth of our being and bearing down upon us through the presence of others. Psalm 139 expresses this conviction in beautiful words:
O Lord, thou has searched me and known me!
Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;
thou discernest my thoughts from afar.
Thou searchest out my path and my lying down,
and art acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.
Thou dost beset me behind and before,
and layest thy hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high, I cannot attain it.
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
Lutherans do not expect salvation from what God is doing in the kingdom of the left hand. Our actions to promote peace, justice, and liberation are not on the same plane as the qualitatively other kingdom which God has brought from beyond our world of possibilities through Jesus Christ. The eschatological kingdom of God in the ministry of Christ and his church does not come about through the politics of this world, which always and necessarily involves compulsion and violence. “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight . . . but my kingship is not from this world” (John 18:36).
The task of the Christian church is to preach Christ and all that pertains to God’s eschatological message of salvation that comes solely through Christ. The church understands itself to be the first heirs of this kingdom through faith alone, worked by the power of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace. Word and Sacraments. If this were all that God were doing in the world, we would have no problem of the two kingdoms. But Christians affirm that in fact God works through other means, the worldly means of politics, economics, family life, and so forth. And God works differently through these natural orders of life. Therein lies the essence of the necessary distinction between the two kingdoms of God. Any church or theology that dismisses this distinction promotes the most pernicious things in both the church and the world. The content of the gospel as eternal salvation is either reduced to a social message to ameliorate the conditions of life in this world, or it is equated with the loftiest wisdom of philosophy and heroic examples of moral achievement. So Jesus is placed roughly on a par with Plato, Confucius, or Marx. The eternal peace of humanity with God, received by faith on account of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the power of Satan, is dismissed as pie in the sky to be exchanged for the various approximations of peace and happiness that in good times this world also knows about and experiences. To distinguish, as Christians must, eternal peace from earthly peace, eternal salvation from this-worldly liberation, social justice from the righteousness of faith does not diminish or discredit the temporal social-historical dimensions of what is true and good and beautiful. These things are also works of God in the ongoing orders of creation. One kingdom need not be played off against the other. Both have their own validity under the twofold activity of the living God.
The church and its members have a special and exclusive calling to be witnesses of God’s promise of eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. No other structure in the world can be called on to promise eternal salvation, and when such salvific claims are made in the name of some nation, race, social class, religion, or ideology, the church must fight such idolatry and blasphemy with all its means of persuasion, even to the point of martyrdom. Such Christian exclusiveness is under heavy attack these days, not only from the side of the world, as one might expect, but from within the church itself, its various councils, bureaucracies, and theologies. There is within the church a fifth-column movement, a conspiracy against the gospel itself, a subversion of Christianity from within its own ranks.
Those who confuse liberation movements with eternal salvation convert the gospel into an ideological promotion of political and social transformation. The doctrine of the two kingdoms can guard believers from this confusion. Augustinian Christians understand that we cannot expect too much from the orders of creation in a fallen world. Inflated expectations can only lead to fanaticism and revolutionary violence or to despair and disillusionment. We all have had the experience of persons imbued with revolutionary fervor in their youth who become cynical opportunists in their maturity.
If the Lutheran confessing movement has stood for anything, it has waged war against works-righteousness in the name of the gospel. But that is the only kind of righteousness that we can expect from the most virtuous accomplishments in the orders of public life. At the heart of Lutheran understanding is the insistence that the righteousness of Christ available through faith alone is something totally other. It is totally a gift from God, received freely through faith apart from the works of the law. Those who play by the rules of the game in the orders of creation may win prizes commensurate with their efforts, but all that has nothing to do with securing eternal peace with God.
I have argued that Christians need to rehabilitate the doctrine of the orders of creation so that they will not legalize the gospel to fill the structures of public life. God is already at work there through the law of creation that is other than the gospel. People don’t have to be Christians to read and understand this law. Christians and non-Christians are on the same footing in the orders of creation, subject to the same criteria and judged by the same standards. The grace of God in Jesus Christ will not buy out a failing business. Conversely, the best government or social system in the world cannot forgive sin, overcome death, or secure eternal salvation. That, Christians understand, is what the gospel does, and it is ultimately for the sake of the gospel’s integrity and uniqueness that the church needs to rehabilitate the old Lutheran doctrine of the orders of creation.
Carl E. Braaten is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.