Blog of Concord

Debunking theologies of glory since, well, last November.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Braaten on the State of the ELCA (Hint: he's not happy)

Dwight is back. In a big way.

He, along with others, posts an open letter from Carl Braaten to the Rev. Mark Hanson, bishop of the ELCA, on the state of the church.

...the kind of Lutheranism that I learned – from Nygren, Aulen, Bring, Pinomaa, Schlink, P. Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Pannenberg, Piepkorn, Quanbeck, Preus, and Lindbeck, not to mention the pious missionary teachers from whom I learned the Bible, the Catechism, and the Christian faith -- and taught in a Lutheran parish and seminary for many years is now marginalized to the point of near extinction. In looking for evidence that could convincingly contradict the charge that the ELCA has become just another liberal protestant denomination...there is not much there to refute the charge. As Erik Petersen said about 19th century German Protestantism, all that is left of the Reformation heritage is the aroma from an empty bottle.

"Recently in an issue of the Lutheran Magazine you expressed your hope that Lutherans could some day soon celebrate Holy Communion with Roman Catholics. My instant reaction was: it is becoming less and less likely, as the ELCA is being taken hostage by forces alien to the solid traditions Lutherans share with Roman Catholics. The confessional chasm is actually becoming wider. So much for the JDDJ! The agreement becomes meaningless when Lutheranism embarks on a trajectory that leads to rank antinomianism."

My friend Wolfhart Pannenberg has stated that a church that cannot take the Scriptures seriously is no longer a church that belongs to Jesus Christ... Does the ELCA take the Scriptures seriously? We will soon find out. Whoever passes the issue off as simply a hermeneutical squabble is not being honest – “we have our interpretation and you have yours.” Who is to judge who is right? The upshot is ecclesiastical anarchy, sometimes called pluralism. To each his own.

I regretted that Braaten gave no background and did not go into some specific instances of what he considered "the drift into liberal Protestantism" meant. I therefore explicate what I think it means in the comments section of Dwight's blog.
Here is my contribution:

1. Braaten drops the name of Karl Barth a lot and refers to
"liberal Protestantism" or "Kulturprotestantismus." (Caveat: "liberal" does not mean "21st-century Democrat:" in the letter, Braaten mentions that he is against the Iraq war.) "Culture-Protestantism," obviously a put-down term rather than a school of thought, might be generically described as a Christianity that gives lip-service to creeds and confessions while in actual doctrine and practice taking its cue from the contemporary culture. Barth specifically disagreed with the experience he had with "cultural Protestant" German theologians who said that the will of God could be discerned in several places, i.e. in nation and culture. The term can also illuminate those Christians who live uncritically to the culture and are not formed by the culture of Christ. His turning point came when these theologians supported World War I on the basis that God also spoke through the will of the nation, and his defining moment came when many of that same school later supported Hitler on the grounds that Volk and nation was an instrument of God's will independent of the church's proclamation and witness. Barth was the primary author of the 1934 Barmen Declaration which famously stated that "Jesus Christ is the one Word of God that we must obey in life and death," and to posit that there were other loci of authority that we could set alongside or in opposition to Christ was heretical.

2. In the contemporary "Protestant" culture, Braaten and others see a Kulturprotestantismus which differs in its assumptions about the culture but is one with the primary assumption that Barth critiques: the idea that one can know God and God's will through other means than through Christ. In our context, this means: there is no mediator - God or Christ primarily speaks to us through our experience of self and world and the experience of those who are oppressed, whatever their experience may be. Neither the Scriptures nor the Church are truly sources of authority - at best, they become the confirmation of God granting me my own authority as authentic self-interpreter. When they contradict my view or my culture's view of reality, they may be set aside because they do not define Christ for me: rather, my own understanding and experience defines Christ for me. This may best be summed up in our day by what is now the unofficial creed of our full communion partner, the United Church of Christ: "God is still speaking," and its unofficial symbol, the comma. How does God speak? Not through Bible, Sacrament, Creed, confession, or community, but through my own imaging of who God might be and my own unique experience of reality. This necessarily leads to a plurality of truths, which in effect is a negation of truth, for the notion that there can be more than one truthful answer to a specific question is logically bankrupt.

3. How is this played out in the contemporary situation? Obviously the homosexuality question for Braaten and those like him is a key issue, for it encapsulates the revolt against Bible and Church as sources of authority and sets against them the witness of the self that "God has authentically created me this way," which is a revelation granted in an inner sense to the self and which may not be disputed by Bible or Church. But it should be noted that the acceptance of homosexuality is only one and the most visible symptom of the main assumption which is simply this: The Scriptures and the Church formed by their teaching are not the primary or sole revelation of God. God must be experienced, known, and apprehended by myself above and beyond the witness of Scripture and the Church. The Scriptures may confirm the self's apprehension of God, but they may not correct it. Moreover, they are not the "final word." They are simply "a" word to be set in dialogue with other words, and interpreted according to the disposition and beliefs of the believer. "God is still speaking."

In the academy of the ELCA, including my alma mater, Gettysburg Seminary, and from its bishops and pastors, in its social statements, denominational materials, and materials published by its publishing house, the following assertions are made, perhaps not bold-facedly, but "between the lines," for those who are enlightened and would seek to be.

a. The Trinitarian doctrine and the Incarnation are not revelation, but are primarily products of religious imagination. When they are taught as authoritative, they displace the views of other religions and of feminist and womanist "revelations" of the identity of God.

b. Because of the above, the Christian faith is not in a privileged position as regarding visions of the divine.

c. Jesus encountered the reality of God, but was not God himself. We in fact have the same capacities as Jesus.

d. The Bible is only authentically read as a document that describes how people were touched by the experience of God. A reading which would attempt to define the nature of God, describe historical occurrences, or draw conclusions for life together is a "text of terror" which excludes those who read the text differently.

e. Sin is inauthenticity to self, not disobedience to God.

f. When considering ethical questions, the primary locus or reference is the self. A decision on abortion (to take one example) is to be judged upon whether "I" am able to bear a child without undue emotional, physical, or financial hardship. The same self-referential assumption is made in the case of physician-assisted suicide, stem-cell research, divorce and remarriage, etc.

Catholicism and Orthodoxy provide obvious antidotes in their structures to the doctrine of the authority (some would say "tyranny") of the self. The irony for Lutherans is that Luther insisted that he himself had the authority to interpret the Scriptures. However, his was not the freedom to add or detract to them according to his predispositions, but to read them as they actually were. Naturally none of us free ourselves from our "baggage" so thoroughly as to interpret the Scriptures free from bias. But to interpret them in a way that the clear texts are discarded or superseded by my own bias or by another principle is to fall into error.

One final personal word: the homosexuality debate is often seen as a debate about certain kind of people: who is in, who is out. I would posit that Braaten and those like him might say that it is about where God speaks: in the self or in the Scriptures (which are also "means of grace" with the Sacraments). When we listen, which we are exhorted to do, do we listen together to the teachings of the Scriptures and the witness of the tradition, or do we listen to the voices of our aspirations and desires, which Lutherans have traditionally believed are "curved in upon themselves" and do not tend to seek the will of God but rather to substitute their own wills? I do not wish to give glib answers to those who struggle with homosexuality or with the issues surrounding it. I am against bumpersticker theology in all its forms. But I hope it has become clear, at least, why this issue is the lightning rod for those who are concerned that the moral and religious discernment of the self has displaced the Scriptures as the "inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of our proclamation, faith, and life." (ELCA Constitution 2.04)


At 7/17/2005 5:47 PM, Blogger Clint said...


I think this is helpful explication of what Braaten vacuously and unhelpfully leaves absent from his letter. Bombshell is an apt word for his letter. After it explodes, there's no content to latch onto.

I disagree that the homosexuality debate is an argument about where God speaks, in the self or in the Scriptures. I find enough in the Scripture and tradition to believe that homosexuals in committed same sex relationships can be and are blessed by God, and can serve as pastors in our church. I can make this argument from Scripture and the ethical tradition of our church. I don't need arguments from the self to ground it.

At 7/17/2005 6:52 PM, Blogger Maurice Frontz said...


Go for it!

BTW, "Chip" is fine - my blogger name is Pastor Frontz b/c I have a youth group blog which unfortunately I never update.

At 7/18/2005 8:44 PM, Blogger Mr. Carlson said...

Pastor Frontz,
I wrote an open letter to Carl Braaten complaining that there was not enough substance to his charge and that we simple lay people needed a more specific set of complaints. My letter and his response are both posted at

John Carlson

At 7/18/2005 10:34 PM, Blogger Maurice Frontz said...


Where is the response? Can't access it.


At 7/18/2005 11:21 PM, Blogger Mr. Carlson said...

Pastor Frontz,
The file was corrupted and had to be re-posted. It is available now. Sorry.


At 7/19/2005 8:59 AM, Blogger Lee said...

For what it's worth, I think maybe there is not a single "homosexuality debate" but rather there are several different debates swirling around. Some of them, I think, definitely do fall into the trap of using the self as a source of revelation. During the brouhaha over Gene Robinson in the ECUSA, for instance, there was a lot of talk about sex as "sacramental" and "revelatory" and I believe that Bp. Griswold himself said something to the effect of "Yeah we're going against scripture and tradition."

Which is not to say, as Clint points out, that there couldn't be a case for same-sex relationships that is based on scripture and tradition.

But this all simply highlights the fact that in our church (and in mainline Protestantism as a whole) there is no agreed upon standard for settling these kinds of debates except majority rule (which amounts to the exercise of political power). Some will prefer to make tradition-and-scripture based arguments, others will be frankly more revisionist and dismissive of Scripture. The problem is that both preferences are effectively given equal weight so long as the outcome is determined by voting.

To me, this points to a more structural problem with the way these kinds of decisions are made in the ELCA (and elsewhere). We all have our preferences, and then we put it up for a vote. There is very little sense that our preferences need to be shaped or ordered by something outside ourselves.

At 7/19/2005 1:46 PM, Blogger Andy said...

I think Lee's point is very important. Not everyone on the same side of the sexuality issue holds the same theological views. Because the cause is almost universally supported by theological liberals it is identified as a theologically liberal cause. But there are also a minority of theological conservatives (myself among them) who support the cause.

The point about structure and decision making (which Braaten also makes in his response to John Carlson) is an important one, though it raises the question of whether a consensus of bishops is any more certain to be right than a majority of lay people. My first reaction is to think not, but the story of Korah's rebellion comes to mind to speak against me.

At 7/21/2005 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is heartening to know, at least, that I'm not alone in being a theological conservative who on this issue believes we have been wrong and can make a course change, faithfully.

At 3/02/2006 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

when sin is relegated back to simply inauthenticity of self without acknowledging that source as one's own fault in the matter then it is easy to distance yourself from God's judgment over you. the problem with liberal protestantism is that it borders on authentic atheism.


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