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Out of the Ashes: A Case Study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Theology and the Orders of Creation

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The Future of Creation Order

Part of the book series: New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion ((NASR,volume 3))

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In this case study, I examine what the orders of creation meant for theology in Germany during the 1930s and ’40s as the Nazis rose to power. I compare the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to that of two well-known creation order theologians—Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch. Finally, I consider Bonhoeffer’s theology of the four mandates in Ethics as an alternative answer to völkisch creation order theology.

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  1. 1.

    Both Althaus and Hirsch were Nazi sympathizers in the years leading up to the Third Reich . Robert P. Ericksen argues in his book Theologians Under Hitler : Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch that Hirsch escaped denazification by retiring from the University of Göttingen before the Allies were able to cleanse that university. Althaus appears to have been more moderate in his support of the Nazis, certainly in his publications; however, he was removed during the denazification process. Later, he was rehabilitated and allowed to teach at the University of Erlangen, from which he retired in 1966 . See Ericksen (1985).

  2. 2.

    This chapter does not deal intensively with the German history that led to the formation of the Nazi movement , or with the cultural particularities of German character. This description is simply to give a brief glimpse into the impulse that informed the theology of the scholars investigated within this case study.

  3. 3.

    Volk is not an easy word to explain within English. The literal translation is “folk” or “the people.” However, the understanding of the meaning as used here would be closer to “nationalistic, populist movement” in English.

  4. 4.

    Staat, d.h. Heerschaft in der Form des Rechtes, ist nach lutherischer Lehre, obgleich überall durch Menschen entstanden und verwaltet, eine Ordnung Gottes, durch welche Gott in einer Welt der Sünde und des Widerstreites die Menschheit vor dem Chaos bewahrt und Leben in Gemeinschaft ermöglicht ” (Althaus 1934b; translation mine).

  5. 5.

    Covering all the issues that accompanied Pan-Germanism and affected creation order theology in Germany during the 1930s and ’40s is too large a topic for this paper. For further reading , please see Evans (2004, chap. 1), “The Legacy of the Past ,” and Burleigh and Wippermann (1991, chap. 2), “Barbarous Utopias: Racial Ideologies in Germany .”

  6. 6.

    In his work, Ericksen recognizes the theological differences between Althaus-Hirsch and Bonhoeffer . However, for the most part he misses Bonhoeffer’s critique on Althaus and Hirsch and instead highlights similarities in the goals of their theology.

  7. 7.

    By this statement Bonhoeffer disagreed that national identity, history , or—in Bonhoeffer’s time—racial theory had a role in our relationship with God. For Bonhoeffer, history did not determine who God is or what God requires of his creature in the current moment. Only relationship with and a personal understanding of God could require obedience.

  8. 8.

    Bonhoeffer used the term “orders of preservation” in order to avoid using the term “orders of creation” since he realized this term had disastrous results in theological application.

  9. 9.

    For Bonhoeffer “good” in this sense was a prescribed ethical formulation of action, or a standard of knowing whether one was acting according to God’s will. Bonhoeffer considered God as living and relational, which meant that we would need to hear God’s will in fellowship with God as each occurrence arose rather than depending on static ethics to determine whether we were in God’s will.

  10. 10.

    In Creation and Fall Bonhoeffer identified “wanting to know good and evil” as the sin of Adam which brought separation from God.


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  • ———. 1937. Völker vor und nach Christus. Leipzig. Quoted in Ericksen 1985.

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  • ———. 1998. Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 1. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

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Correspondence to Annette Mosher .

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Mosher, A. (2017). Out of the Ashes: A Case Study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Theology and the Orders of Creation. In: Glas, G., de Ridder, J. (eds) The Future of Creation Order. New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion , vol 3. Springer, Cham.

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