I'm reading Carl Braaten's latest book, That All May Believe: A Theology of the Gospel and the Mission of the Church. It was given to me at my ordination, and I admit to enjoying the book – not because I agree with with Braaten. Quite the contrary. I find myself shaking my head and writing the words, "NO!" or "exaggeration!!!" in the margins as I read this book (I'm about 1/3 through it as of this writing).
(Alternate title: The ELCA is not as whacky as Carl Braaten says it is)
Rather, I'm enjoying the book because it is making me think and respond to someone who is convinced that "heresies are rampant in the parishes, seminaries, and offices of the mainline churches" (page 43) (he also makes this asssertion, indirectly but nonetheless strongly, in his recent letter blasting the ELCA's proposted statement on human sexuality). Elsewhere, Braaten likens the threat posed to the church by radical theological liberalism to the threat posed by the Nazis to the German church of the 1930s (see page 44). (Can we please stop invoking the Nazis – who slaughtered millions of Jews – in our internal theological disputes? This seems terribly reckless, if you ask me.)
In response to this onslaught of liberalism which is wrecking the church, Braaten claims that "many wish they had the steady hand of Catholic magisterial teaching to help when they witness the Bible's authority being disolved in the acids of late modern culture" (page 53). Yet he doesn't name these "many" people, or the "Barmen-like delcarations" signed by "thousands" of signatories (page 44) in a Mainline milieu consisting of millions of members. When it comes to citing specific heretics or examples of heresy or theological oppression, Braaten is largely silent. He names only a short list of liberal theologians (none of which teach at Lutheran seminaries) who do not represent the core of teaching at our seminaries or in our parishes. That is, Braaten sets up a radically liberal straw theologian that doesn't really exist, at least not to the extent that he claims it does, and not in the ELCA.
Braaten also seems to have elevated moral theology to a dangerously high place. I was particularly disappointed when he referred to the ordination of women (along with the ELCA's approach to abortion and homosexuality) as a "church-dividing issue" in a section on Catholic-Lutheran relations (page 51), as if the ordination of women is something that divides our unity in Christ and for which the ELCA should apologize in an act of obeisance toward Rome. For Braaten, "church-dividing" seems to mean anything of which Rome disapproves. As I summarized here three years ago, the ELCA is not as liberal as everyone claims it is. I think Braaten mischaracterizes the church (see radically liberal straw theologian, above) and simultaneously places too high an emphasis on moral theology and third use of the law, coming dangerously close reducing Christianity to a moral code (but more on that in a future post on the proposed sexuality statement and his letter).
Carl Braaten served the church faithfully for thirty years as a professor of theology, retiring from active teaching in 1991. His critique of the church is primarily, then, a critique of the next generation of seminary faculty, including those who were his students. That is, he is lamblasting as heretical the church that has formed me, trained me to be a pastor, and ordained me. He's talking about my church. And if I sound like I'm taking some of this personally, well, I am. I know by reason and by faith that Christ has been proclaimed in my churches, that the Gospel has been taught faithfully and in accordance with tradition and guided by the Holy Spirit, and that the sacraments are being administered faithfully. In every single congregation, by every single pastor? Of course not, but please, show me the perfect church.
But I like this book because I resonate with much of what he says, nonetheless. If we can gloss over his exaggerated claims about the state of the church and look instead at his critiques of radical liberal theology (critiques which I learned in my supposedly heresy-plagued seminary), listen to his calls for the role of tradition in our church life (a call not terribly different than what I heard in that same seminary), and evaluate his proposal for a church and theology that is both evangelical and catholic (ditto), we will have much to gain, whether we agree or disagree with his characterization of the church today.
As I mentioned earlier, I'm only about 1/3 of the way through this book (I'm finding it to be a page-turner, even though I am not the most disciplined reader). More about this book, and his response to the sexuality statement, in future posts.