Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism
by Carl E. Braaten
Fortress, 164 pages, $16
Carl Braaten, long a respected voice in American Lutheranism, here offers a welcome distillation of a half century of theological study and reflection. By means of this brief but wide-ranging book we can renew our acquaintance with him as a student of Paul Tillich, as the author of a doctoral dissertation on Martin Kähler, as an early proponent of the “catholic” understanding of Luther, and as a maturing ecclesiologist in lively dialogue with Karl Barth, Eberhard Jüngel, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and George Lindbeck.
Revisiting territory covered in his early work on Kähler, Braaten here takes up the problem of the historical Jesus in the context of the so-called “third quest” now being conducted by responsible scholars (and not just by the Jesus Seminar). He holds fast to his original position, consonant with Kähler’s, that the real Jesus cannot be delivered by scientific historical method divorced from faith. That method has built-in presuppositions that prevent it from satisfactorily engaging with saving events such as the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Its results, historically probable at best, cannot serve as foundations for faith. The Church and its tradition, according to Braaten, are intrinsic to the hermeneutic of historical inquiry into the Christ-event.
While he firmly accepts the authority of the Bible, Braaten is aware of the limitations of the formula “Scripture alone.” He acknowledges that Holy Scripture, as a privileged distillation of early tradition, cannot be identified or rightly interpreted except in light of tradition. Holding that biblical hermeneutics must place itself within the living tradition of the Church, Braaten responds enthusiastically to the 1993 Instruction of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.” He approvingly quotes Pope John Paul II to the effect that biblical scholars must conduct their investigations within the framework of the Christian vision of reality.
Regarding the problem of faith and reason, Braaten sides with Tillich and Pannenberg against Barth and Jüngel. God, he holds with these mentors, can be approached through reason because “signals of transcendence” (to borrow Peter Berger’s term) appear at the limit situations of human life. The idea of God springs spontaneously into the human mind, but for the full assurance that God is real we need the gift of faith, or else we might settle for God as a mere “regulative idea” or projection of the human psyche. Braaten’s “new natural theology” is therefore a rather modest affair. Reason, for him, raises the question of God; faith gives the answer.
Building on his earlier investigations into the “catholic” aspects of Luther, Braaten stoutly maintains that Lutheranism was never intended to become a separate church in competition with Rome but to serve as a reform movement within the Church catholic. Like Lindbeck, he uses the metaphor of a government in exile. The Free French during World War II and the anti-Castro Cubans of today have a strong sense of their mission not to emigrate permanently but to return to their mother country. A Lutheranism that abandons the mother Church and settles for becoming just another Protestant denomination has betrayed its mission.
For the early Lutherans the only condition for reunion was that Rome should adhere to the gospel of justification by faith. After the reforms of John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council it becomes increasingly difficult, in Braaten’s judgment, to answer the question whether there is still a need for Protestantism as an independent movement, criticizing the mother Church from outside rather than working as a leaven from within. The disputes about justification have been substantially narrowed by Lutheran-Catholic dialogues. The major difficulties today seem to be in the realm of ecclesiology rather than soteriology. Protestant churches, according to Braaten, incline toward a model of separation between Christ and the Church, whereas Roman Catholicism tends toward a close identification between the two. Protestantism spiritualizes the true Church, whereas Catholicism tends to restrict the Church to its Roman realization. Braaten seeks to chart a mediating course in which both the gospel and the structures receive their due. While repudiating the idea of a “return” to Rome, he looks forward to a future union in which the two sides will converge toward the fulfillment of each.
Remarkable in this book is the author’s strong emphasis on magisterial authority. Three times he quotes from Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession to the effect that bishops by divine right have the office to preach, to forgive sins, to judge doctrine, to condemn heresy, and to excommunicate the ungodly. Such authority, he asserts, cannot be given without ordination. One of the tragedies of the Reformation, in his view, is that it severed the links between ordination and magisterium. The laity cannot be expected to teach with authority when they have not received, by ordination, the charism from the Holy Spirit to be teachers of the Church. In expressing this criticism of contemporary Lutheranism, Braaten is consciously echoing the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who complained that within Protestantism the concept of heresy had been lost. Lutheranism, according to Braaten, suffers from a “magisterial vacuum”; it possesses no concrete official and public locus of authority.
In the United States today, Braaten finds, the Lutheran churches have forsaken their catholic legacy. They are riddled with a kind of “lay liberalism” that gives in to the pressures of contemporary secular culture: relativism, radical pluralism, and the cult of purely personal experience. These weaknesses, he notes, correspond with those cited in 1928 by Erik Peterson in his exchange of letters with Adolf von Harnack. Peterson left the Lutheran fold and became a Roman Catholic because he was convinced that Lutheranism had cut itself off from its dogmatic roots. In the absence of an ecclesiastical magisterium, he contended, Protestantism was being tossed about by the contemporary Zeitgeist and was resymbolizing the historic faith according to the prevailing assumptions of modernity.
Braaten is impressed by Peterson’s thesis that the evangelical (Protestant) church cannot take positions on relevant questions because it lacks a dogmatic basis. Many Lutherans in our day, he recognizes, agree with Harnack that Protestantism does not want to be a church in the Roman Catholic manner, since it repudiates all formal authorities. Lutheranism is still, in the expression of Harnack, “severely dependent on the remains of the Catholic tradition among us, as it were, on the aroma of an empty bottle.”
Braaten frankly recognizes that “evangelical catholics” such as himself are a small minority within the Lutheran community. Only a few still want a Church built on dogma, sacramental realism, and the authority of sacramentally ordained bishops. His strategy is to reach out in ecumenical solidarity to like-minded Christians of other traditions. “We are perhaps at a time when renewal will be spurred by a variety of voluntary struggle groups, institutes, centers, associations, and perhaps even new seminaries that will spring up here and there to promote faithfulness throughout the Church to the word of God and to mine the ore of the great catholic and orthodox traditions, retrieving neglected treasures of the historic Church—dogmatic, institutional, liturgical, and sapiential.” Such voluntary groups can surely raise questions and propose improvements, but can they bring about the radical structural changes that Braaten regards as necessary?
Catholics of the Roman allegiance will be on guard against feeling Schadenfreude at the disarray that Braaten describes in contemporary Lutheranism. Catholics in countries such as our own are subject to all the cultural influences Braaten describes. They fall easily into the kind of appeasement and accommodationism he laments. Few are willing to take bold stands, as Braaten does, in the present “struggle for the soul of the Church.” Orthodox Catholics are becoming almost as much a minority in their own theological community as are orthodox Lutherans in theirs. For this reason Braaten’s proposals will strike a responsive chord. It is consoling to learn that there are kindred spirits across the aisle that separates Roman from non-Roman Catholics.
As a Lutheran, Braaten has one problem from which Roman Catholics are spared. Catholics are convinced that they still stand in an organization that was endowed by its founder with covenanted means of grace—doctrinal, sacramental, and ministerial—that enjoy a promise of unfailing divine assistance. Contemporary Lutheranism shows some evidence of seeking to acquire greater ecclesial density. As it moves from being a confession to being a communion, world Lutheranism looks more and more like a reduced replica of Catholicism, and by the same token looks less like the “reform movement” that Braaten describes. The Lutheran World Federation is beginning to act as a voice for world Lutheranism, almost as an opposite number to the Holy See. But in the end it must be asked: Can Lutheranism give itself a doctrinal and sacramental authority that it does not currently seem to possess?
Braaten sees the advantages of the historic episcopate and of the Petrine office as the center of unity. But he evidently feels that he cannot join Rome since its hierarchy is guilty of authoritarianism. This is, no doubt, the characteristic failing of authority in the ecclesiastical as well as the civil realm. But proper and necessary exercises of authority will often appear authoritarian to those who are not favorably disposed to what is being said or done. Some tensions are inevitable; an authority that says and does only what people want is not an authority at all. While Christians should not throw away their God-given faculty of reason, they must recognize that submission and obedience are evangelical virtues, recommended by reason itself.
The questions I have raised in this review are not simply my own. To the author’s credit, he raises them himself with courage, candor, and clarity. Even though I would answer some of these questions differently than Braaten does, I heartily recommend his book to readers who feel drawn—as all of us should—to a Christianity that is both evangelical and catholic.
Avery Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair at Fordham University.