Carl Braaten has been one of the most prolific and influential American Lutheran theologians of the last half-century. The story of his theological travels and intellectual development reads like a Who’s Who of twentieth-century Protestant theology and contains lessons for readers of this journal.
For example, his PhD advisor at Harvard was Paul Tillich, who advised Braaten to read not Tillich but the great theologians in the history of Christian thought. Soon Braaten concluded that Tillich had put history and eschatology onto a procrustean bed of essentialist ontology “that owes more to Plato than to the Bible” (p. 41). Braaten also discovered that Bultmann’s demythologizing project dissolved objective historical realities into an existential moment of decision. “Bultmann sidestepped the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus” (p. 41) and so emptied the apostolic kerygma of its historical contents.
Along the way Braaten learned from the Niebuhr brothers but found that neither did theology in a Trinitarian framework or with a high Christology (p. 42). Barth was right when he said “the Bible is not humanity’s word about God but God’s word about humanity” (p. 62), but Barth was weak on the historical rootedness of revelation. Braaten found Pannenberg far more satisfying because he was able to overcome “a series of glaring dichotomies . . . between revelation and history, faith and reason, the historical Jesus and the kerygmatic Christ, the historicity of the resurrection and the interpretation of faith, Israel (old covenant) and the church (new covenant), Scripture and tradition” (p. 60). Braaten learned from Pannenberg that “history is the key to hermeneutical theory, a concern lacking in the theologies of both Barth and Bultmann” (p. 63).
By this time, in the mid-1960s, Braaten said he was seeing “the handwriting on the wall: Lutherans were joining the liberal Protestants calling for a new morality—love without law” (p. 67). He was also concluding that most Lutherans had misinterpreted Luther. The great reformer had never wanted to start a new Christianity or a new denomination named after himself, but to “summon the church to become truly evangelical, catholic, and orthodox” (p. xi). Braaten says that he has since worked for reunion among the orthodox churches because the existing divisions are a scandal in the light of Jesus’ high priestly prayer for unity (John 17:22–23).
Braaten scores Moltmann for jumping on the liberation theology bandwagon that makes praxis the new criterion for theology and faith (p. 99). Not only did popular liberation theology have Marxism at its base but it “brushed aside” the mystical and liturgical dimensions of Christian faith (p. 100).
During the 1970s and 1980s, Braaten met radical Christian feminist theology and found it wanting. He says that there is nothing wrong with using feminine metaphors and similes for God, as Scripture does, but that changing God’s name (from the traditional Trinitarian names) means adopting a new gospel. He quotes his friend and theological collaborator Robert Jenson: “A church ashamed of God’s name is ashamed of her God” (p. 113).
Braaten then recounts the sad story of the theological and numerical decline of the denomination in which he still serves as an ordained minister—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). In this church, “theology is no longer considered a lifeline but a liability” (p. 126). No one who “bucks the system gets elected to any office” (p. 132). In its publications such as The Lutheran magazine and at its publishing house (Augsburg Fortress), “censorship is massive, complete, and effective” (p. 132).
Braaten’s penultimate chapter recounts his work with Jenson to found the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology and its journal, Pro Ecclesia, which is now one of the premier theological journals in America. He says they started this Center and journal because of challenges to orthodox theology from a variety of sources: radical theological feminists were challenging the Triune identity of God; postmodern relativists were denouncing the authority of Scripture; quota systems and the cult of egalitarianism were undermining the church as the body of Christ; and the Lutheran doctrine of two kingdoms was being challenged by the Left, which equated the gospel mission with social causes, and the Right, which equated the two kingdoms. The common denominator in all these challenges to theological orthodoxy was a church conforming to culture (pp. 140–41).
In his last chapter Braaten takes on the straw that finally broke the ELCA camel’s back: homosexuality. He argues, “the biblical strictures against homosexual acts are true not because they are in the Bible; they are in the Bible because they are true.” Reason and nature (natural law) tell us “that the male and female organs are made for different functions . . . no books on anatomy, psychology, or sociology are needed” (p. 173).
Braaten’s story is not without its puzzling moments. He is rightly critical of the last century’s abundant departures from orthodoxy and takes his own church to task for losing its way, yet calls the Roman Catholic Church “authoritarian” for disciplining its own theologians who taught heresy—Küng, Curran, Boff, Schillebeeckx, and Haight (p. 71). He boasts that during the Vietnam War era while at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago he preached a sermon in chapel comparing Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the other “Chicago 7” to Socrates, Jesus, and Luther. Then he likened America to the Beast of Revelation because this country “forces all the poor people of the world to live off the crumbs that fall from its table” (p. 86). This seems to violate what he holds dear: the stricture that Christians must not confuse the two kingdoms. The otherwise wonderfully engaging book was poorly edited, for it contains more than a few repetitive passages.
Evangelical theologians should be grateful for this memoir. Braaten shows us that a reform movement—both his Lutheranism and our evangelicalism—can go off the rails theologically if it looks more to human experience and the Enlightenment than to the great tradition of orthodox theology.