July 19, 2005

Some Final Thoughts on the Braaten Letter

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:41 pm

My brick-and-mortar life has been crowding out my point-and-click life lately, so my blogging has been light. Last week I posted in full an open letter from Dr. Carl Braaten to Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA. I posted it without any commentary or opinion, because as I noted at the time, I didn’t yet know what I thought about it. Ever since, this has been a loose end that I’ve felt I really needed to tie up, but haven’t been able to get to it. Until now.

Shortly after I posted this letter, I left the following comment in response to a post on the letter over at Versus Populum:

I agree with the complaints about the encoded language here. This is an “insiders” letter, and apparently I’m not an insider in the ELCA, because I don’t have a clue.

When I first read it, I didn’t know what to think. Now I’m just getting angry that Braaten broadcasts this out there without providing a secret decoder ring. I’m feeling a bit left out…

Now, I realize that Dr. Braaten is a theologian using the language of theology to speak to other theologians, and I am certainly no theologian. But what frustrated me was that Braaten was warning a general audience of a dire situation, but didn’t communicate in a way that any but a few would understand. After all, Braaten wanted his letter to be distributed as widely as possible. I wouldn’t have minded if he had cried “FIRE” in a crowded theatre (assuming there really was a fire.) But instead, Braaten cried “KULTURPROTESTANTISMUS” in a crowded theatre without considering that most of those present (me included) would have no idea what that meant nor what to do about it.

Fortunately, Pastor Frontz provided a lengthy exposition of the letter in a comment following mine.

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….The term can also illuminate those Christians who live uncritically to the culture and are not formed by the culture of Christ.

Thus, Braaten is criticizing the abandoning of tradition and Scripture in favor of the views of popular culture. Pr. Frontz also sees in Braaten’s letter a critique of the view that “truth” can be decided by each individual based on their own experience rather than by the entire body of Christ based on God’s will as revealed in Scripture and tradition. This tendency is apparently exhibited by the liberal side of the homosexuality debate, but this is not the only place it appears.

The discussion on Versus Populum eventually moved to the ordination of women, and whether the ELCA’s predecessor bodies’ decisions to do so represented Culture-Protestantism, or a clearer understanding of the Gospel in light of its traditional interpretation.

Carl would (I hope) and I do deny that the decision to ordain women was a deviation from Church teaching. (It, surely, represented a substantive departure from Church practice and discipline over virtually all the life of the Church, but as I try to explain, it was not really a violation or denial of the teaching of Scripture.)

I would point to the quite serious study of the issue by predecessor bodies of the ELCA, the LCA and the ALC (ah, the glories of Lutheran alphabet soup): Those studies looked at Scripture very carefully, along with quite serious — though with not hearly enough exposition– of the history of the issue. And both groups concluded that the Scriptures do not, at minimum, foreclose ordaining women.

As other commenters noted, many of us theologically orthodox Lutherans see the homosexual issue in exactly the same way. So finally, here is what I think.

Dr. Braaten’s critique has nothing to do with me. I do not feel free to pick and choose Scripture based on the current culture, but believe that God calls us to ever deeper understanding of God’s will as expressed in Gospel. I feel rooted in tradition, and recite the Apostles Creed every Sunday, but like Luther, I believe we are called to correct the errors of my Christian tradition. I proudly consider myself part of liberal Protestantism in the US, but that does not take away from what makes me Lutheran: the theology, liturgy, traditions and community of my denomination.

The GLBT debate going on in the church in the US is another in a long line of evolving discernments we have made regarding God’s will, including the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, divorce and remarriage, and the ordination of women. None of these issues have been decided based on the current culture, but often the culture has made it untenable to avoid wrestling with them. Fleeing to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy doesn’t allow one to avoid the search for God’s will for these most difficult of questions.

(Thanks to Dwight, Dash, LutheranChik, Melancthon and others for their insightful comments at Versus Populum.)


  1. But if you “believe we are called to correct the errors of my Christian tradition”, this is a pretty BIG error! The Lutheran Confessions claimed that all the errors which had crept into the Catholic Church were relatively recent, and that the Confessors represented true catholic Christianity of the Apostles and Fathers. Your argument is radically different — that the Church was wrong from the very beginning.

    You are free to make such a claim, but you cannot claim your Lutheran heritage in support of it.

    Comment by Darel — July 20, 2005 @ 6:39 am

  2. nice to read comments from your perspective. I live in ELCA-laden Central Illinois so I do aappreciate seeing someone being progressive within a tradition that on the surface seems to be treading water.


    Comment by c.k. tygrett — July 21, 2005 @ 6:07 am

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