Monday, August 02, 2010

Carl Braaten: Oprah-Loving Left-Wing Fruitcake

Man, do you dig that crazy Carl Braaten? He is on one way-out trip, theologically speaking.

We at the Egg had long labored under the impression that Carl Braaten, one of America's foremost Lutheran theologians, possessed a distinctly conservative bent. After all, he helped Robert Jenson edit a couple of fat volumes called Christian Dogmatics, and he once published our own article on Purgatory in a journal called Pro Ecclesia. Usually, Latin titles and the word "dogmatics" hint at a certain backward-looking mindset. But of course, a freaky radical in love with Scheliermacher and in bed with Jeremiah Wright would use them too -- as camouflage.

Courtesy of Pr. Joelle and her wide reading, our eyes have been opened by the Rev. Mr. Cary Hanson, who organizes something called the "Faithfulness Gathering," a Minnesota-based website for disaffected ELCA members. (And not to be confused with the Iowa-based "Call to Faithfulness" gatherings, nor with the 1990s "Call to Faithfulness" gatherings, organized in Minnesota, by some dope-smoking radical named ... Carl Braaten.)

In a fascinating and informative -- although poorly written -- essay, Hanson argues that the ELCA is a theologically corrupt institution, from which congregations ought to flee. To prove this, he scans the ELCA's website looking for evidence of its theological convictions. (Apparently the actual Confession of Faith from the constitution doesn't convince him). Here's his case, in a nutshell:

Perhaps nothing is clearer than in the ELCA understanding of salvation. [sic; have we mentioned Hanson's execrable prose?] For many leaders of the ELCA have deviated from the biblical understand of salvation and practice what is know as Universalism, that is, a theological doctrine that all human beings will eventually be saved. Many have come to know this as the “Big God” theology where all roads lead to God with or without Jesus Christ. Popular secular icons such as Oprah Winfrey have even proclaimed this theology.

Oprah! Yes! She's our false goddess, the Ishtar to whom we raise our sacred poles. Ah, but how to prove the point? Which theologian best typifies the Ishtar-cult that is the ELCA? Braaten! And Hanson has him dead to rights:

Within the official ELCA web pages there is a presentation of what the ELCA confesses. Titled, “What We Believe”, there is presented here the official position of the ELCA concerning salvation. In these pages the authors, who speak for the ELCA while not exactly state an official statement such as “We believe”, quotes extensively from the liberal theologian Carl Braaten, "The Christian hope for salvation, whether for the believing few or the unbelieving many, is grounded in the person and meaning of Christ alone, not in the potential of the world’s religions to save, nor in the moral seriousness of humanists and people of good will, not even in the good works of pious Christians and church people.... There is a universalist thrust in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s theology. How else can we read passages such as 'for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ' (1 Cor 15:22)?"

Okay. Go back and read that again, because the grammar is, to put it mildly, elusive. Some anonymous writers, who may or may not speak for the ELCA, quote Braaten saying that the hope for salvation rests in Christ alone. If we are understanding correctly, this is a bad thing because this hope may be available to some people among the "unbelieving many." Okay.

Later they quote Braaten again, saying that as ELCA Lutherans we believe as truth, "If Jesus is the Lord and Savior, he is the universal Lord and Savior, not merely my personal Lord and Savior. Because Jesus is the unique and universal Savior, there is a large hope for salvation, not only for me and others with the proper credentials of believing and belonging to the church, but for all people whenever or wherever they might have lived and no matter how religious or irreligious they may have proved to be themselves."

Again, no salvation is possible except through Christ. And "a large hope" is not the same as the BCP's "sure and certain hope," available to the Church.

Let's be fair, and admit that both Braaten and Jenson have raised, once or twice, the possibility that Lutheran theology permits the possibility of universal salvation, while also saying explicitly that Lutheran theology does not permit the definitive proclamation of same. (Can we find the bibliographic reference offhand? No. Probably either Principles of Lutheran Theology or the Dogmatics.) So have any number of missionary and Jesuit theologians, like the late Karl Rahner and his dubious theory of "anonymous Christians." The idea is typically to argue that Christ can save even those who do not know or believe in him. Hanson, however, is so determined to find something else -- a definitive proclamation of salvation apart from Christ -- that he sees it here, despite the plain grammar of the quotation. But then, grammar isn't Hanson's strong suit.

Speaking of which, here, for our English-major money, is the best part of the whole essay:
Truthfully, the words are a little unclear on the subject of salvation on these pages. The average reader may find it difficult to determine what exactly is the official teaching of the ELCA.
And not just the average reader. After reading this, we have no idea whether Braaten speaks authoritatively on behalf of the ELCA or not. At least we wouldn't, did we not know for a fact that he doesn't. The ELCA's statement of faith is in its constitution. (Or, wait, did "the words" refer to something apart from Hanson's own essay?)

Anyway, we're still back on that first graf, with it's memorable reference to "the liberal theologian Carl Braaten." Frankly, we don't think "liberal" goes far enough. Radical! Extreme! Schliermacherian! And sneaky, too. He must be sneaky, or why else would he have organized those conferences we mentioned? The ones where, according to Mark Chavez of WordAlone and CORE,
[a]ll of the prominent ELCA biblical and confessional Lutheran theologians participated as speakers and workshop leaders — Robert Jensen, James Kittelson, Gerhard Forde, William Lazareth, Joseph Burgess, George Lindbeck, Carl Braaten, Richard John Neuhaus and many more. It was a who’s who in confessional Lutheranism in the ELCA.
And sneaky, again, because of his 2005 open letter to PB Mark Hanson, in which he complained at length that "[t]he 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."

Now, in that same letter, Braaten out-and-out confesses his own liberalism:
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.
Uh-oh. Longhair alert! Score one for the grammatically-challenged Pr. Hanson! But maybe that's just sneaky, too. Because in the same breath, Braaten starts in on antinomianism transforming Lutheranism into a liberal protestant denomination, in terms of doctrine, worship, and morality. Sneaky, see? Because how can a guy call himself a liberal while still opposing, say, feminist theology, gay marriage, and making a dog the Pope? Unless ... can it be possible? ... the word "liberal" and "conservative" don't always mean the same thing in every conceivable context.

We've always said -- and we'll say again -- that "conservative" is a tricky word, not least in theology, since it immediately raises the question of what is to be conserved. We consider ourselves conservative to an extreme, but we realize that some people may think us otherwise. Baptists, as we have often pointed out, often present themselves as "conservative," despite roots in an intense 17th-century radicalism that seeks to overthrow all of historic Christianity.

Braaten may indeed be a political liberal. Wouldn't surprise us in the least. But theologically, he's something else. Call it "conservative," if you must, or post-liberal, or evangelical catholic, or retro-medieval via Tillich. Or you can just call him what we at the Egg do, even while disagreeing with him: the most consistently outstanding theologian in America today. With all due respect to Oprah.


Pastor Joelle said...

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for taking this on. I was just too paralyzed, dumb founded, flabbergasted...beyond even respond. When words fail me, you know it's bad...

Father Anonymous said...

My pleasure. I am simply stunned that anybody would use Carl Braaten as an example of theological decline in the ELCA. Stunned.

Frankly, it sounds like a lame attempt to delude decent but theologically unread church members, who may not know who Braaten really is. In other words, a lie, and not a clever one.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

To be truthful, a lot of what you wrote was over my head, and a lot of what you quoted wasn't understandable due to the individualistic grammar [and grammar is an ares where we DO need universalism.] Whether lib. or conserv.; Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, or Jesus-People, theologians seem to put their own thoughts and words on a pedestal. It doesn't matter what they say. Only God decides who is "saved."

This morning my husband was referring to the church where he grew up [WELS]: "They are convinced of their own correctness." This type of attitude, of personal bearing, doesn't seem to fit with coming before God with a humble heart.

Father Anonymous said...

Heh -- "individualistic grammar." I like that.

In this case, though, I want to emphasize that what's going on is almost the opposite of the presumptuous exclusivism you're describing.

Where the WELS (and many, many other church bodies and individual Christians) believe that they do know who is in and who is out, eternally speaking, Braaten has occasionally suggested, over the years, that neither he nor anybody else knows whom God has chosen to save. It seems like an obvious point, but ... well, here we are.

John said...

OMG, Carl has really let himself go, judging by the picture. It could be Blanche Jenson with him, no?

Noah said...

If I recall correctly, it is in "No Other Name!" where Braaten does a bit of work which at least touches on universalism as the scope of Christ's work. I think it begins in the chapter titled "Christ is God's Final, but not only, Revelation" (or something to that effect.

I also want to say that he touches on it again in "Apostolic Imperative."

Braaten seems to understand the gospel as exclusive but universal (at least in scope).

Mr. Hanson, if this is the same person of which I am thinking, is phishing quite a bit for stories of discontent in the ELCA. He has posted a request on the CORE facebook page. From what I have read on there, many people seem sympathetic to his "cause."

I think that these tend to be demonstrations that what is really going on is a culture war more akin to American politics than theology.

Father Anonymous said...

Thanks for the references. As for Hanson, yes, he does appear to be searching desperately for evidence to support his thesis.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Can we know the mind of God? no. So how can we know, or dictate, whom God saves? We know what is promised in the Bible, but that doesn't mean that God isn't capable of doing even more than what is in the Bible. I'm not by nature a universalist, but rather I'm a person who believes that God is bigger that the words on the pages of the Bible.