Lutheran theologian considers AELC's disproportionate influence on the ELCA
Because of Christ: Memoirs of a Lutheran Theologian. Carl E. Braaten. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2010. 224 pages, softbound. $18. www.eerdmans.com.
ELCA members will find little to smile about in Carl E. Braaten’s 2010 book Because of Christ, which he subtitles “Memoirs of a Lutheran Theologian.” Braaten is the son of Norwegian Lutheran missionaries who was raised in Madagascar, graduated from St. Olaf College, Luther Seminary, and Harvard Divinity School, and is now a professor emeritus at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, where he taught for many years.
Braaten believes the ELCA is in a crisis because it is losing its theological roots. He felt so strongly about the issue that he wrote an open letter to ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson in 2005. In the letter, which is reprinted in this book, he cites the exodus of a number of distinguished theologians from the ELCA to the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church in America and asks why this is occurring.
“There is one thread that runs throughout the stories they tell,” Braaten writes. “It is not merely the pull of Orthodoxy or Catholicism that enchants them, but the push from the ELCA, as they witness with alarm the drift of their church into the morass of what some have called liberal Protestantism. … They have decided that they can no longer be a part of that. … They are not willing to raise their children in a church that they believe has lost its moorings in the great tradition of evangelical (small e) and catholic (small c) orthodoxy (small o), which was at the heart of Luther’s reformatory teaching and of the Lutheran confessional writings.”
Braaten says he agrees with the late Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who called liberal Protestantism a “heresy.” And Braaten says the kind of Lutheranism he learned and which he taught “is now marginalized to the point of near extinction. … Our pastors and laity are being deceived by a lot of pietistic aroma, but the bottle is empty.”
The theologian points to a number of controversial issues on which he has supported Bishop Hanson. “But none of that equates with transforming Lutheranism into a liberal Protestant denomination, in terms of doctrine, worship, and morality,” Braaten writes.
Homosexuality is not the issue
Hanson’s long reply was treated as personal, as he requested, but some supporters of the bishop did respond. A number of them said that Braaten’s underlying concern was the ELCA’s preoccupation with the issue of homosexuality, but the theologian denies that. He quotes from a chapter on that subject he wrote in a 2007 book The Ten Commandments for Jews, Christians, and Others.
“It is still a matter of scientific debate,” Braaten wrote, “whether homosexuality has a biological basis or is the result of cultural conditioning traceable to early childhood experiences. Christian ethics is in no position to take sides on this psychological question.”
But, Braaten says, “The mere fact that some homosexuals may be born with such a disposition does not necessarily mean that it is God’s design for humanity. What we often call ‘natural’ is the good creation in the state of its fallen condition. Homosexuality, however natural it might seem in the biological sense, is not rooted in the order of creation in the theological sense. … On account of sin, God’s intention is being frustrated in the sexual dimension as well as everywhere else.
To [minorities and feminists] the issue of race and gender was far more important than dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in matters theological and ecclesiological.”
“For Christians, the ethical problem soon becomes a matter of pastoral care. How can the church help homosexuals to be ‘cured’ so far as that is possible, to accept their condition for what it is, to sublimate their sexual urges, and to live by forgiveness in this aspect of life too? Homosexuals are not helped at all by anyone pretending that their condition is normal after all.
“The burden on the church today is not to revise its belief that homosexuality is a deviation from the divine purpose of sex, to which the Scriptures abundantly testify, but more to change its attitude toward those afflicted by this condition and to open up channels to help them. From the point of view of the church’s ministry of healing, it makes no real difference whether homosexual practice is theologically spoken of as ‘sin’ or psychiatrically spoken of as ‘sickness.’ The grace of love and compassion is needed in either case.”
The source of the contention
Braaten lays much of the blame for the ELCA’s alleged slide from its theological foundation at the doorstep of the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC), the splinter group that broke away from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in 1974. The AELC joined with the American Lutheran Church (ALC) and the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) to form the ELCA in 1988.
“The AELC received a lot of the credit — or the blame — for creating a new church that moved to the left on the spectrum of Christianity in the United States, resembling more than ever just another liberal Protestant denomination,” Braaten writes. “The ex-
Missourians pushed for greater democracy in the church and they got it, with all its virtues and liabilities. The upshot was that the church was destined to be governed by a lay majority vulnerable to the manipulation of an unelected bureaucracy at liberty to use the organs of the church to promote its own liberal agendas.”
Braaten maintains that during the deliberations of the Commission for a New Lutheran Church (CNLC), which drafted the constitution for the ELCA, “the AELC representatives, together with the representatives of minorities, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, and the representatives of women, formed a coalition to emasculate the … veteran leaders from the ALC and the LCA.
“On account of the quota system, it became clear from the start that theologians would not have much say in the formation of the new Lutheran church. The coalition of minorities and feminists would see to that. To them the issue of race and gender was far more important than dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in matters theological and ecclesiological.”
Braaten had seen an example of the AELC’s influence before when that synod’s Seminex seminary was merged with the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. “The unexpected consequence of such a strong contingency of Seminex personnel was to move the faculty and student body to the left on social, cultural, and theological issues,” Braaten says.
He adds: “Having been condemned as liberals and heretics in their home church, they became advocates of progressive agendas in their new ecclesial setting. The poison of political correctness spread into every aspect of seminary life.”
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