Because of Christ: Memoirs of a Lutheran Theologian
By Carl E. Braaten
Eerdmans, 210 Pages, $18
Lutherans are a theologically odd lot. They started the Reformation, but they have never felt entirely comfortable with the Protestant label. They don’t doubt that Rome was wrong, but they have always suspected that most of their fellow reformers got a number of important things wrong themselves. Like their namesake, Lutherans have been eager to separate themselves from the errors both of the papists and of those whose opposition to popery was not, in their eyes, as astute, precise, and nuanced as their own.
These days, Lutherans, at least in America, are in disarray. Their numbers are dropping, and their theological distinctiveness isn’t what it used to be. The largest body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), generally looks and acts like any other mainline Protestant denomination. The other major body, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), insists on its faithfulness to the particularities of the sixteenth-century Lutheran confessions, but over the years evangelical beliefs and practices have made significant inroads into its life and witness.
These unsettling conditions form a context for consideration of Because of Christ, Carl Braaten’s brisk and engaging memoir. This is not, for Lutherans, a happy tale. Braaten had a rewarding and distinguished theological career before his retirement in 2005—he has written eighteen books, edited twenty-five more, and published hundreds of articles—but his account of the church he served follows the pattern of decline and fall all too familiar in recent decades.
Braaten, who was born in 1929, spent his childhood in Madagascar, where his parents were missionaries of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America, one of the ELCA’s many predecessor bodies. He went to college at St. Olaf in Minnesota, and after a year as a Fulbright scholar at the Sorbonne in 1951 he attended Luther Seminary in Minneapolis—where, over the next three years, he learned the rudiments of Lutheran dogmatics but little of the Church Fathers and almost nothing of modern developments in biblical studies and systematic theology.
Braaten’s post-seminary graduate education made up the deficit. At Harvard Divinity School, with the encouragement of his mentor Paul Tillich, he immersed himself in the classic texts of Christian theology, with special attention to Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity. After two years at Harvard, he spent an academic year at the University of Heidelberg, whose outstanding faculty (including the young systematician Wolfhart Pannenberg) made it, in Braaten’s appreciative words, “the citadel of the rebirth of confessional Lutheran theology” in the postwar era.
By the end of his studies—he wrote his doctoral thesis on the quest for the historical Jesus—Braaten had worked through the theologies of such mid-century luminaries as Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, and Karl Barth but become the disciple of none. He lists Tillich as his greatest influence, but his own synthesis borrowed most heavily from Pannenberg’s eschatological theology of hope. His theological self-description indicates his eclectic inclinations: “evangelical without being Protestant, catholic without being Roman, orthodox without being Eastern.”
At the beginning of his years as a seminary professor—most of them spent at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC)—Braaten was on the liberal side of the American Lutheran political and theological spectrum. In January 1962 he and a number of other young academics launched the journal Dialog, which they intended as a kind of Lutheranesque Vatican II that might draw a provincial and stagnant denomination into creative engagement with modern culture. They hoped for a Lutheranism less pietist, biblicist, and theologically parochial.
Over the course of the tumultuous 1960s, Braaten’s politics moved for a time somewhere beyond liberal, and his theology developed accordingly. Converted by a 1968 sabbatical year at Oxford to radical opposition to the Vietnam War, Braaten elaborated an eschatological ethics that sought, without succumbing to secular utopian schemes of violent social transformation, to “baptize the concept of revolution.” The idea was to work—nonviolently and within the constraints of Lutheran two-kingdoms warnings against illusions of earthly new Jerusalems—toward a politics that might provide a better approximation of the kingdom of God proleptically revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
That was a tall order, and Braaten concedes that his attempt at baptizing revolution may not have been a successful one. One suspects that the lack was more in his sometimes febrile politics than in his theology. In defending the cause of the Chicago Seven—radicals indicted for antiwar protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention—he implicitly compared the charges brought against the likes of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden to those raised in the trials of Socrates, Jesus, and Luther. Preaching at an antiwar service at LSTC, he compared at length Vietnam-era America with the beast in the Book of Revelation: “The beast is a world imperialist; it exercises authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation.”
Braaten’s critics charged that his antiwar enthusiasms led him to violate the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel (he still doesn’t think so), but his overall theological perspective clearly placed him in the “evangelical catholic” camp of Lutheran orthodoxy. He defended traditional missionary preaching of the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ against historical relativists and religious pluralists who viewed it as at best pointless and at worst a cultural imposition. He modified his initial enthusiasm for liberation theology because of its tendency to reduce traditional themes of sin and salvation to “the dialectics of the historical process.”
Similarly, while Braaten welcomed the ordination of women, he stood adamantly against feminist theology, particularly the insistence on eliminating all masculine references to God. Changes in trinitarian language, he insisted, “point to a different religion and a different gospel.” Asked at a pastoral conference whether a child not baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could be saved, he quipped that “the baby would be saved but the pastor would surely go to hell.”
Braaten spent several years in the 1970s engaged in ecumenical discussions, sponsored by Vanderbilt Divinity School, that brought together leading academic theologians from across the spectrum of mainline Protestantism. He came away from the experience disillusioned, concluding that with its drift away from orthodoxy and its increasing preoccupation with liberationist, feminist, postmodern, and post-Christian themes, “liberal Protestant theology had come to a dead end.”
The rot found its way into Braaten’s own church and seminary—a process hastened, in Braaten’s telling, by the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago’s acceptance, in 1983, of ten faculty members who had lost their positions at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in the 1970s civil war between moderates and conservatives in the Missouri Synod. The LCMS exiles, having suffered condemnation by Missouri conservatives, became, in Braaten’s view, a reflexively progressive bloc that moved LSTC ever further to the social, cultural, and theological left. The theological impetus behind this “paradigm shift” was an antinomian impulse that, in denying the use of the law as a guide to Christian life, led ineluctably to, among other unfortunate things, “support of the gay / lesbian agenda.”
The ex-Missouri influence had a similarly deleterious effect, Braaten thinks, in the formation of the ELCA in 1988. The founding fallacy in the new church was a “defective ecclesiology” that provided for governance by a lay majority, dominated under a quota system by minorities and feminists, in which theologians were marginalized and issues of race and gender took precedence over traditional ecclesial and confessional concerns.
By 1991, Braaten had had enough. A wrenching quarrel over a new faculty appointment that pitted, in his view, a serious theological ethicist against a marginally qualified radical feminist convinced him that LSTC was no longer the place for him to expend his intellectual energies in defense of the faith. He resigned his position and, together with his longtime friend and colleague Robert Jenson, established the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Studies in Northfield, Minnesota.
Over the next fourteen years the Braatens and the Jensons (both men’s wives participated actively in the center’s work) collaborated in activities—conferences, seminars, and, most notably, production of the journal Pro Ecclesia—that expanded from a Lutheran core to give ecumenical witness to the great tradition of catholic theology. Braaten was forced to leave a Lutheran seminary to practice the kind of Lutheranism he thought he had signed up for in the first place.
Carl Braaten is still a member of the ELCA, though he thinks it a church in which the actual Lutheran tradition “is now marginalized to the point of near extinction.” Even the dissidents in the ELCA are divided between denominational Lutherans and evangelical catholics, and the Missouri Synod, with its “biblical fundamentalism,” is not, for him, an option. A number of prominent Lutherans have in recent years left for Rome, but Braaten has never been tempted to translate his catholicity into Catholicism. He reports that in retirement in Arizona he and his wife have found a congenial local congregation. That’s the kind of consolation Lutherans of his persuasion are these days reduced to.
James Nuechterlein, a Lutheran layman, is senior editor at large of First Things.