Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Pericope of the Week: H. v. Campenhausen on Church Order

As readers of my blog know, I'm currently editing and co-translating the theological writings of Edmund Schlink, who taught historical and systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg in the middle decades of the last century. One of Schlink's closest friends was his colleague, Hans von Campenhausen (1903-89), who taught church history there. Indeed, both of these men helped to rebuild that university, the oldest one in Germany, in the wake of Nazism and the Second World War.

Hans Freiherr von Campenhausen
In order to gain insight into Schlink's intellectual context, I've been reading works by v. Campenhausen. Earlier today his essay on the problem of order in early Christianity and the ancient church served as part of my daily devotion. I here share a few paragraphs that will serve as this week's pericope:

"The concept of order, taxis, is extremely rare in the initial period of the church. It occurs and is stressed on only one occasion in the entire New Testament [1 Cor. 14.39-40].... Thus a decorous, orderly mode of divine worship and of conduct generally is presented as the obvious form in which the spiritual life within a community should develop, always provided that liberty in the stirring of their faith and action be not suppressed, the Spirit not 'quenched' (1 Thess. 5.19).... Peace with God and the peace that comes from God--this is what designates the true essence and power of the new thing that determines from within the church in the process of its building up and in the joint action of all its members; it is the power of love and the working of the Holy Spirit who is given by Christ and has taken possession of Christians in their wills and their being. This unique and determining element must be, above all, the main issue in the church and in preaching to those outside. All the rest becomes manifest of itself, when viewed, and only when viewed, from this standpoint.

"This indicates the point from which our problem must be viewed once and for all, from which alone it can rightly be grasped and discussed. The church does not originate through order nor live by right order, but solely in the Spirit of Christ. If, however, it lives spiritually, then it is in order and attains to order, then, through the Spirit of peace, it also sets right order in its midst, without becoming a slave to this order....

"From this standpoint we can see that it is no accident that, not only in Paul, but, as we have said, in the whole of early Christianity, so little is said about order as such or even about order for its own sake--in fact, apart from a single letter of Clement of Rome, we may confidently assert that no mention is made of it at all. There were more important, more imperative subjects of preaching, and it was realized that the preaching of Christ was the actual determinate factor. Accordingly, questions of church order only gradually, as the occasion required, and in a quite secondary manner, claimed any considerable attention.

"The main thing is that the church lives by the word, the Spirit and the peace of God, and from thence--as Paul claims--it derives and determines its order. Further, either of itself or with the help also of conscious, calm and objective reflection, it continues in order or arrives at it. The constant danger of a Catholic, or near-Catholic approach to the question of order is that of making this an absolute over against the spiritual source of life and even against the ordered life of the church, of viewing 'right' order itself as an essential thing to hold on to, and of making it, independently, part of doctrine. This produces the opposed danger of a distorted Protestantism, which thinks to serve the Spirit by minimizing order, seeing it as a matter of indifference, or even destroying it. The consequence of such a negative approach is, ultimately, a like state of dependence on a human conception of order, to which far too much weight is attached, and which is fatal to the church. There is only one power from which the church draws its vitality, namely the preaching of the word and of the truth, which brings forth faith and, through faith, the will to right action; and this in turn comprises right order. Order, like good works, always comes in the second place, and can be rightly achieved only when what is first, the unique thing (and in this sense also isolated) is asserted and willed above all else. This is the fundamental principle of the gospel, which must work itself out in life as well as in doctrine, and ensures that order is neither idolized nor rejected...."

----Hans von Campenhausen, "The Problem of Order in Early Christianity and the Ancient Church," in Tradition and the Life of the Church: Essays and Lectures on Church History, trans. A. V. Littledale (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 123-26 [trans. slightly modified].


  1. I keep studying where Schlink and Campenhausen came from given the data from your opening paragraph. The dystopian reality they witnessed affected their perspective of order. They're not against order, they just want order to come from the right place.

    Lately I've found myself questioning what kind of churches and Christians "sold out" to the Nazis? What were the personality traits and characteristics of these people? I pray to never have these evil compromising traits for the sake of comfort and conformity. There is comfort in order.

    My question is did the Nazis worship order? If so, wouldn't sell out Christians be pulled to do the same thing?

    My last question is did the sell out Christians of Nazi Germany ever have the Holy Spirit? I would say some probably did but chose to ignore the Spirit. Grace is deep.

  2. How timely that this reflection should appear. I will be attending a transitional ministry forum for our synod this Saturday. One of my main beefs with church order is that accents are placed on the sociological matter that come with studying groups. The approach should be from the reverse. As our confessions state and co-extensive with the New Testament, the church is where the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered. Those gathered for that are the result of that call. The sociological matter, though apparent, are not the focus of the order. I'll be using your excellent comments from your blog here as a reference at that meeting. Take care, Matt.