July 13, 2005

Open Letter to Bishop Mark Hanson From Carl E. Braaten

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 7:33 pm

The following is an open letter circulating around a few blogs and ecunet. I post it here in its entirety without comment, mainly because I’m not yet sure what I think about it. I will say, though, that the concerns Braaten describes have never occurred to me.

An Open Letter to Bishop Mark Hanson From Carl E. Braaten

The Reverend Dr. Mark Hanson Bishop,
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
8765 West Higgins Road
Chicago, Illinois 60631

Dear Bishop Mark Hanson:

Greetings! I am writing out of a concern I share with others about the theological state of affairs within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The situation might be described as one of “brain drain.” Theologians who have served Lutheranism for many years in various capacities have recently left the ELCA and have entered the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church in America.


When Jaroslav Pelikan left the ELCA and became a member of the OCA, I felt it was not terribly surprising. After all, he had been reading and writing about the Fathers of Eastern Orthodoxy for so many years, he could quite naturually find himself at home in that tradition, without much explanation. A short time before that Robert Wilken, a leading patristics scholar teaching at the University of Virginia, left the ELCA to become a Roman Catholic. Then other Lutheran theological colleagues began to follow suit. Jay Rochelle, who for many years was my colleague and the chaplain at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago joined the Orthodox Church. Why? Leonard Klein, pastor of a large Lutheran parish in York, Pennsylvania, and former editor of Lutheran Forum and Forum Letter, last year left the ELCA to study for the Roman Catholic priesthood. Why? This year Bruce Marshall, who taught theology for about fifteen years at St. Olaf College and was a long-standing member of the International Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue, has left the ELCA to enter the Roman Catholic Church. Why? David Fagerberg, formerly professor of religion at Concordia College, although coming from a strong Norwegian Lutheran family, left the ELCA for the Roman Catholic Church, and now teaches at the University of Notre Dame. Reinhard Huetter, a German Lutheran from Erlangen University, came to the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago fifteen years ago to teach theology and ethics, now teaches at Duke Divinity School, and this year became a Roman Catholic. Why? Mickey Mattox, a theologian who recently served at the Lutheran Ecumenical Institute in Strasbourg and now teaches at Marquette University, has recently begun the process of becoming a Roman Catholic.

In all these cases the transition involves spouses and children, making it incredibly more difficult. Why are they doing this? Is there a message in these decisions for those who have ears to hear?

All of these colleagues have given candid explanations of their decisions to their families, colleagues, and friends. While the individuals involved have provided a variety of reasons, there is one thread that runs throughout the stories they tell. It is not merely the pull of Orthodoxy or Catholicism that enchants them, but also 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 are convinced that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has become just another liberal protestant denomination. Hence, they have decided that they can no longer be a part of that. Especially, they say, 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 the Lutheran Confessional Writings. They are saying that the Roman Catholic Church is now more hospitable to confessional Lutheran teaching than the church in which they were baptized and confirmed. Can this possibly be true?

I have decided, without any doubt about it, that I could not re-invent myself to become something else than I was raised to be by my Magadascar missionary parents – an heir of the Lutheran confessing movement. Through theological study and ecumenical engagement I thought I had learned something about what it means to be Lutheran. I have written many books and articles, preached and published many sermons – leaving a long paper trail – over a period of five decades, explaining what it means to be Lutheran. There is nothing in all of those communications that accommodates liberal prostestantism, which Karl Barth called a “heresy,” an assessment with which I fully agree. If it is true that the ELCA has become just another liberal protestant denomination, that is a condition tantamount to heresy. The most damning thing in my view that can be charged against the ELCA is that it is just another liberal protestant denomination. Are all these theologians wrong in their assessment of the ELCA?

I wish I could deny it. I have been looking for some convincing evidence to the contrary, because I am not about to cut and run. There is no place I know of where to go. I do know, however, that 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, it would seem reasonable to examine what is produced by its publishing house, theological schools, magazines, publications, church council resolutions, commission statements, task force recommendations, statements and actions by its bishops. The end result is an embarrassment; there is not much there to refute the charge. As Erik Petersen said about 19h century German Protestantism, all that is left of the Reformation heritage is the aroma from an empty bottle. A lot of the pious piffle remains, but then, so was Adolf von Harnack a pious man. All the heretics of the ancient church were pious men. Our pastors and laity are being deceived by a lot of pietistic aroma, but the bottle is empty. Just ask these fine theologians – all friends and colleagues of mine – who have left the ELCA. They are not stupid people; they don’t tell lies; they don’t make rash decisions. They are all serious Christians. What is happening is nothing less than a tragedy. The ELCA is driving out the best and the brightest theologians of our day, not because it is too Lutheran, but because it has become putatively just another liberal protestant denomination. I would think that this is a situation that ought to concern you immensely as well as all the leadership cadres of the ELCA. But might it also be the case that the very persons who ought to be troubled by this phenomenon will say to themselves (perhaps not out loud), “good riddance, we won’t be bothered by those dissenting voices anymore? We wish more of their ilk would leave.”

I must tell you that I read all your episcopal letters that come across my desk. But I must also tell you that your stated convictions, punctuated by many pious sentiments, are not significantly distinguishable from those that come from the liberal protestant leaders of other American denominations. I do not disagree with your political leaning to the left. I am a life-long political liberal, unlike many of my friends. My wife and I opposed the unjust war against Vietnam in the 60’s and 70’s, and we have with equal conviction opposed the foolhardy invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration. We also supported the ELCA in its ecumenical actions to re-institute the episcopal office by means of passing the CCM as well as to adopt the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Vatican. But none of that equates with transforming Lutheranism into a liberal protestant denomination, in terms of doctrine, worship, and morality.

When I finished my graduate studies at Harvard and Heidelberg, I was ordained by the ELC and served a parish in North Minneapolis, simultaneously teaching at Luther Seminary. At that time I was instrumental in founding Dialog, a journal of theology, together with Robert Jenson, Roy Harrisville, Kent Knutson, James Burtness, and others, in order to draw midwest Lutheranism into the world-wide orbit of Lutheran theology. We were not ecumenically oriented at the start. At that time no Luther Seminary professors were dealing with the issues posed by Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Barth, Brunner, Aulen, Nygren and many others. Dialog got the reputation of being a journal edited by young upstarts who thought they knew better. It seemed to us then that most of our professors were not very well informed. But they were good Lutherans, not a single heretic among them. Heresy was not the problem at that time. The journal that our group founded in 1961 has now become the voice of a liberal protestant version of Lutheranism. Robert Jenson and I resigned from the journal as its editors in1991 to found a new journal, Pro Ecclesia, a Journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology. In the last fourteen years we have published the articles of theologians of all traditions – Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, Evangelical, and Orthodox – exhibiting the truth that we all share common ground in the Great Tradition.

The same cannot be said of Dialog anymore. It has become a function of the California ethos of religion and morality, nothing seriously Lutheran about it anymore, except the aroma of an empty bottle. Too bad. I was its editor for twenty years and Jenson for ten years, but now in our judgment it has become, perhaps even unwittingly, the very opposite of what we intended. The journal now expresses its belief that to be prophetic is to become the mouthpiece of the denominational bureaucracy, that is, to attack the few dissenting voices in the ELCA.

One day a church historian will write the history of Lutheranism in America. There will be a few paragraphs trying to explain how the self-destruction of confessional orthodox Lutheranism came about around the turn of the millennium and how it underwent a metamorphosis into a liberal protestant denomination. 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.

Where do we go from here? I am going nowhere. Meanwhile, I am hearing rumors about a possible schism or something about the formation of a dissenting synod. None of that will redound to the benefit of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church we confess in the Creed. Each person and congregation will do what they deem fitting and appropriate in view of the apostasy that looms on the horizon of our beloved Lutheran Church. 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. That is not an original statement of his or mine, but one said by every orthodox theologian in the Great Tradition, including Athanasius and Augustine, as well as Martin Luther and John Calvin. 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. Chacun son gout!

I am extremely sorry it has come to this doctrinally unstable situation in the church I was ordained to serve almost half a century ago. My father and two of his brothers served this church in Madagascar and China. My brother and sister served this church in the Camaroons and Madagascar. My cousins have served this church as ordained ministers in this country and abroad for decades. Knowing them as well as I do, I am confident in stating their belief that this church in some of its expressions is not remaining truly faithful to the kind of promises they made upon their ordination to the Christian ministry.

Can the situation which I have described in stark terms be remedied? Have we reached the point of no return? Are we now hopelessly mired in what Karl Barth identified as “Kulturprotestantismus?” I know of about half a dozen Lutheran renewal groups desperately trying to call the ELCA back to its foundational texts and traditions. Would they exist if there were no problem that needs to be addressed? How many congregations and pastors have left or are leaving the ELCA for other associations?

One day we will have to answer before the judgment seat of God as to what we have done for and against the Church of Jesus Christ. There will be no one by our side to help us find the words to use in response. All of us will have many things for which to repent and to implore God’s forgiveness. And we will all cry out, “Lord, have mercy!”

Sincerely in Christ our Lord,
Carl E. Braaten


  1. Winston Smith, in 1984, wrote, “if there is hope,
    it lies in the proles.” So in the ELCA, if there is hope,
    it lies in the parishes. Thank you, Dr. Braaten, for
    staying and fighting the good fight. I, too, believe I
    have nowhere else to go. And I’m glad to know you’re a
    political liberal like me. How do you like that Karl Rove?

    Comment by mim — July 14, 2005 @ 3:04 am

  2. At first I thought I would have no sympathy whatsoever with Dr.
    Braaten. After all, I am a modernist through and through, and
    my first inclination would be to suggest he simply walk away and
    find himself a more congenial group to associate with. On the
    other hand, I share his sentiments, albeit from the opposite end.
    My liberal church has been moving (being moved, actually) from its
    historic solid modernist grounding to shakier ground by taking on
    the trappings of “just another liberal church.” Our uniqueness and
    our passion are in danger of being dissipated, and our heritage is
    being betrayed, and I fear we will be the lesser for it. And I do
    not want to go anywhere else. So, in a sense, I can empathize. I
    do not know the answer, either, because I am looking for it myself.

    Comment by wildwest — July 14, 2005 @ 5:37 am

  3. Braaten is a windbag.

    He is right, though—there is a serious problem of brain drain from the ELCA. And it’s going in both directions, because the ELCA is a lukewarm church, neither hot nor cold, and a lot of folks are spitting it out. All the orthodox theologians are leaving for the RCC or the Orthodox Church, and very few liberal Protestant theologians who start out in the ELCA stay there through the course of their formation as theologians, because we’re sick and tired of waiting around for study after study while churches like the UCC are building a prophetic ministry that speaks out against the church’s hateful prejudices.

    If the ELCA wants to survive—and I hope it does, because the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods are not going to keep American Lutheranism alive—it needs to develop a clearer theological identity, whether that identity is ultimately conservative or liberal. Right now it’s a muddle and no one feels like it’s worth staying to fight it out.

    (To be clear, I say this even as I’m hoping to join a local ELCA church and maintain dual-membership in the ELCA and the UCC. I think the fight is worth fighting. I’d hate to see the ELCA fall prey to the same takeover that the Southern Baptists saw and the Methodists are experiencing right now. But it’s frustrating spending time on the same arguments against the Right’s biblical idolatry when other churches are doing something.)

    Comment by Chris T. — July 14, 2005 @ 7:01 am

  4. “…a church that cannot take the Scriptures seriously is no longer a church that belongs to Jesus Christ.”

    This trend of clergy and laypeople leaving for orthodox Churches is occuring in several “Christian” demoninations. It will continue as long as there are still people that recognize that the Church is not about politics but about worshiping Jesus Christ for who He is, the Son of God.

    I don’t think it is confined to “liberal” Churches although they are the ones getting press these days.

    Comment by bobk11 — July 14, 2005 @ 9:10 am

  5. It’s unfortunate that Braaten won’t give concrete examples of where he feels that the church is making compromises. I’m fairly certain he’s tying to avoid being pilloried by the more radical elements of the liberal tradition by not appearing anti-gay or whatever. The problem is that we are left with vague statements abou how this ill-defied shift is catastrophic to the stability of the church and nothing to comment or begin conversations on. Maybe Carl is letting us begin our own conversations, and i so, he is as guilty as the heirarchy of the Lutheran church he is trying to warn for not taking a leadership role and beginning the conversaton with a statement of beliefs and purpose that might allow others to find common ground or room for conversation.
    Simply warning against the loss of confessional identity without diagnosing symptoms that people can relate to removes this warning from the realm of public discourse and keeps it at a more rarified level, fodder for theologians and church historians.
    As someone whose Lutheran identity was in part shaped by Dr. Braaten’s writings (as a pastor, I read a fair bit of his work in seminary)I understand his passion for the clarity and integrity of the Lutheran confession as it makes its own clear statement about who God is and who we are as God’s children. Makin the confession sacrosanct and invulneable to re-thinking simply because they are foundational raises them to the same level as the Bible, an honor I do not think that they deserve.
    Christ is the center, Carl, not the Bible, not the confessions, not the Book of Concord.
    Christ will survive with or without all of those things and while the world may suffer for want of a Lutheran sense of theological clarity, it is unpardonably arrogant to think that we own the concept of clarity or can claim exclusive truth.
    Maybe the church will suffer for want of clarity for a while, maybe the exodus of the learned will continue. But what good would doctinaire posturin do us? There are planty of denominations and sects out there flogging the “exclusive truth” myth, we hould always stand as the faith tradition that honors faithful exploration and engagement with the world outside the faith.

    ha’penny’s worth of (apparently hopelessly liberal) Lutheran Theology

    Comment by sermonatorAK — July 14, 2005 @ 10:48 am

  6. Speakers speaking in code (reprise)

    Bob at I am a Christian Too posts an open letter from Carl Braaten to Bishop Mark Hanson regarding the state of “brain drain” in the ELCA.

    Trackback by Gaunilo's Island — July 15, 2005 @ 8:21 am

  7. The question I haven’t heard asked is whether or not Lutheranism should survive. That is, whs survival ever the intent of Lutheranism. I don’t think so. Mainly I was convinced not by Braaten in his book, Mother Church. Once Lutheranism has made its contribution to the Church as a whole, it should die out. The only problem, from Braaten’s overall position as I understand it, is that he doesn’t think Lutheranism has finished its work yet.

    On the Dwight’s blog (http://versuspopulum.blogspot.com/) this letter caused quite a controversy because of the obvious fact that this letter is dancing around but clearly referring to the issue of homosexuality. Pastor Frontz’ comments there are worth seeking out as he explains very well the theological issues at stake.

    Comment by Mel — July 16, 2005 @ 1:37 pm

  8. Loosing our moorings are not the real threat. It is not the purpose of a ship to stay moored to the dock. That is not to say that the ELCA has not for sometime seemed rudderless and adrift. On key proposals (not only sexuality) the leadership — the bishops and (especially)presiding bishops have not lead convincincly in the face of challenges. The opposition to Concordat and CCM was filled with spurious argument yet it was never seriously challenged but the leadership which was supposedly supporting the proposals. Now, we have recommendations on (homo)sexuality which are fatally flawed theologically, ecclesiologically, administratively and practically. Is this the best we can do? I believe Lutheran hermenutics could have led us through this tricky business, the theology of the cross and the alien righteousness of Christ leading us into a proper understanding of use of the law neither antinomian nor petty moralizing, but there has been little stomach in the Task Force, the Conference of Bishops, the Seminary Faculties or anywhere else to do the necessary work–all have been too busy focusing their attention on what everyone thinks or feels, or worrying about what they will do if…..

    Braaten raises important questions of why? He’s right in this regard, that the church which was built around the concept of inclusivity has managed to marginalize serious theology in favor of pietism and/or populism.

    Perhaps we’re not the church we once were. Perhaps Rome is nearer to what we were than we are now. But surely it is not because Rome has changed, not under the last pope and it is too early to tell where we are with Benedict (there are some glimmers, but I don’t think we can expect too much). All that said, the loss of so many important voices within our church is worrisome.
    Why have they left? I dunno. It’s difficult for me to see how an increase of problems in the ELCA decreases the problems in Rome.

    Comment by jgk — July 17, 2005 @ 11:17 pm

  9. This is exactly what is in my heart and mind. First-hand experiences in my own ELCA Lutheran church have driven me in a new direction. After four years of careful and prayerful dissernment, I am going to become a Catholic. The ELCA has moved into a new level of low with no evidence of turn back to the foundation of Jesus Christ or the theology that began with Martin Luther. One reason to leave the ELCA and join the Catholic church is the fact that the Catholic church is making it’s way closer to the Lutheran church as the Lutheran church moves further away from the Catholic church. The strong tradition, Christian ways of the Catholic church, beginning with loving God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are still present, thus, creating an inclusive atmosphere to worship and thank the Lord; whereas, the Lutheran church, is trying to become the “all-inclusive” church, welcoming all, blessing all, ordaining all…and are failing because they more importance of quantity of warm bodies in the pews instead of quality worshipers with a full understanding of the Lutheran Doctrine. A huge difference in Rome and the ELCA is that Rome takes many, many years to even contemplate big changes in their doctrine, but the ELCA has managed to change (and not for the better) in less than 25 years. The ELCA church is completely different than anything I ever learned…and I am under the age of 40!

    If Mr. Braaten had not written this fine and eloquent letter first. I would have practically said the same thing. Amen to the entire letter. Thank you for writing it.

    Comment by Crysti — August 25, 2005 @ 10:33 am

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