Carl E. Braaten’s Because of Christ: Memoirs of a Lutheran Theologian

[1] In the early 1990s, fresh out of seminary, I was thrilled to learn that Dr. Carl Braaten was coming to the town where I served to present a lecture at the ELCA synod office. I had read some of Braaten’s work in seminary, but had never heard him speak in person. For an eager young pastor, deeply rooted in the Lutheran heritage and striving to be a parish theologian, it was a rare privilege to learn from one reputed to be among the greatest Lutheran theologians of the later twentieth century.

[2] I was a bit stunned, then, when Braaten began his lecture by comparing the Lutheran Reformation to the French resistance during World War II. He noted, logically, that once the war was over, there was no need for the resistance to continue and it would have been pointless to try to maintain such a movement. And then — to my Carl E. Braaten’s Because of Christ: Memoirs of a Lutheran Theologian by Scott Groruddistinct, but entirely fallible memory — he asserted that the Reformation “war” was over and there was no more need for our continuing resistance. It was time for Lutherans once again to become Catholic. I left that lecture feeling far less certain about his stature as a leading Lutheran theologian.

[3] It was not until I read Braaten’s autobiography, Because of Christ: Memoirs of a Lutheran Theologian, that I realized that his illustration of the French resistance was not new, but one that he had developed in 1966 for a lecture on “the ecumenical significance for Lutherans of the Second Vatican Council.”1 (67) He notes that the title of his presentation was “The Tragedy of the Reformation and the Return to Catholicity,” not to the Roman Catholic Church, and insists that “if evangelical catholics harbor the hope of reunion with Roman Catholics, they certainly do not and cannot mean return to the Roman Catholic Church as Roman…. The idea of a mutual advance converging upon the future fulfillment of what is valid on both sides is a better working hypothesis.” (68)

[4] Yet, this clarification in Braaten’s memoirs is accompanied by nearly five pages of recollections and quotes of how people understood his point then just the way I understood it nearly 30 years later. He insists that his position was soundly Lutheran, even as it was also boldly ecumenical, yet Lutherans (and other Protestants) widely, if not universally, heard him to be saying something quite contrary to core Lutheran convictions.

[5] As I read that section of Braaten’s book in light of my memories of his lecture that I had heard, it became its own illustration of a nagging question raised by his account of his life and work. On one hand, he notes at several points how he chafed against the “neo-orthodox pietism” (3) in which he was raised and the lack of theological rigor in the Lutheran church of his youth. Writing of his education at Luther Seminary, he recalls, “What I learned about the Bible at Luther Seminary was scarcely superior to what I learned from my missionary teachers in Madagascar. The professors at Luther Seminary were sincere, hardworking, pious, and pastoral, but they were not good teachers and most were not theologically well educated.” (23) He describes with an occasional hint of superiority how his graduate studies led him to a broader world in which he read authors and engaged ideas that were entirely ignored in his Lutheran upbringing and education. He admits that, during a sabbatical year at Oxford University in 1968, he and his close friend and colleague Robert Jenson “were radicalized” politically, even letting “our hair grow long, then a symbol of identification with radical politics” (74). At the end of the book, he notes again his commitment to political liberalism, in contrast to the more conservative politics of many of his friends. (168)

[6] On the other hand, Braaten describes his identity as essentially Lutheran and himself as something of a guardian of solid, orthodox Lutheran theology. In the preface to the book, he writes, “I remain a Lutheran by religious experience and theological conviction. Though I have witnessed and lament the near collapse of confessional theology in Lutheran seminary education, the eclipse of catechesis in Christian education, massive ignorance of doctrine on the part of the laity, and wanton disregard of church discipline among bishops and pastors, such enfeebling problems neither make me less Lutheran nor tempt me to become something else.” (ix)

[7] As I read, I began to wonder whether Braaten sees himself as the bold, inquiring theologian, engaging all the best scholars and avant-garde ideas of the day or the solid representative of a great heritage, faithfully passing on “as of first importance what I in turn had received.” (I Corinthians 15:3) More to the point, which of the two portrayals is more accurate? To borrow the tag line of the old game show, “Will the real Carl Braaten please stand up?”

[8] In the end, however, I concluded that I, as the reader, had perhaps imposed a false dichotomy on Braaten’s story. His account never makes the choice between the frontline, engaged theologian and the faithful, confessional Lutheran, but embraces both as essential for a teaching theologian in the Lutheran tradition. In his own accounting, he betrays no uncertainty that he managed to hold those vocations together with integrity and consistency. (Whatever other character flaws Braaten may have, self doubt does not appear to be among them.)

[9] Still, there were dramatic shifts that occurred throughout Braaten’s career, but they were not so much in the positions he has held as in the context in which he held them. In a paragraph that may well serve as the theme of the book, he writes,

I have written my assessment of the new Lutheran church from a theologian’s perspective. Of course, I am biased. I studied to become a theologian of the church and have served in that capacity for half a century. I do believe that theology is one of the lifelines of the Christian faith. From my perspective theology is no longer considered a lifeline, but a liability in the church of which I am still a member. I am waiting for someone to prove me wrong. The teaching theologians in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have little or no credibility outside the walls of their own diminishing denomination. Some who agree with that negative assessment have jumped ship and are plying other waters. (127)

[10] That is a harsh judgment, to be sure, but it seems to have more of the character of lament than condescension, and it reflects how sharply the context in which he did his work changed during his career. Beginning as a brilliant, intellectually curious student in a tradition that was strong in piety, but weak in academics, his initial response was one of rebellion, straining to break the bounds of his tradition by studying and teaching the best Lutheran theology of the day. Describing his year of study at Heidelberg University in 1957–58, Braaten exults, “Here was the citadel of the rebirth of confessional Lutheran theology after the Nazi period; here a Lutheran systematic theology was being shaped as an alternative to Barthianism and a Lutheran theological critique of Bultmann’s demythologizing program was being mounted; it was the launching pad of the theology of hope that Pannenberg was pioneering through his essays on hermeneutics, eschatology, and history.” (37) If Braaten tends to dismiss his mission-field grounding in the faith and his seminary education as intellectually benighted, it seems clear that his goal was never to abandon that tradition, but rather to enrich it by serving as a conduit for the brightest and best Lutheran thinking he could find.

[11] Braaten insists that even his radical political views remained entirely consistent with the faith that he had received. In 1968, Wolfhart Pannenberg invited him to give two lectures at the University of Mainz. He titled them “Radical Theology in America” and “Toward a Theology of Revolution.” (76) Neither would suggest a conventional reading of Lutheran themes such as the Two Kingdoms. Yet, even in asking, “Is there any way to baptize the concept of revolution?” Braaten insisted that “it must conform to the kind of eschatological revolution that Jesus envisioned in his message of the oncoming future of God’s kingdom…. Jesus was a unique kind of revolutionary.” (76f.)

[12] However, as the years passed, Braaten perceived that the solid, academic Lutheran theology he had long championed came to be valued less and less highly by his colleagues and various church denominations. Beginning in the chapter recounting his years teaching at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (1968–1991), he describes a series of developments that — in his judgment — eroded the confessional foundation of American Lutheranism and, even more, the basic orthodoxy of other mainline denominations. As he (again by his own accounting) held the theological center, the theological world around him shifted so dramatically that he found himself no longer the “young Turk” challenging the Lutheran church to enter the modern age, but the “old lion” pleading for it to preserve its heritage and not sacrifice it for the latest academic or social trends. It was a marked shift, to be sure, but not in the basic content of Braaten’s theological convictions. Rather, a largely consistent theological agenda was now serving a nearly opposite function.

[13] Among the theologically deleterious developments Braaten recounts are:

liberation theology that degraded into a Marxist political agenda,
radical feminism that was willing to suppress even the received name of God in order to avoid masculine terms,
antinomian views that denied any role for God’s Law in the life of believers,
quota systems that determined church leaders and seminary faculty members according to pre-determined categories, rather than strictly on experience and qualifications,
sexual revisionism that overturned normative Christian teaching on “God’s design for humanity.” (175)
[14] The list goes on, but the combined factors eventually led Braaten to resign from LSTC. As an explanation, he accepts the verdict of his friend, Robert Jenson. “What made Carl Braaten overturn his life is a judgment: seminaries of the ELCA are now institutions emphatically inhospitable to theological work and instruction, and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.” (127) The movement from “young Turk” to “old lion” was now complete.

[15] The consequences of that transformation continued, however. Already in his last two years at LSTC, Braaten joined others in sponsoring two “Call to Faithfulness” conferences at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. They were free conferences — not officially sponsored by the ELCA — and marked a direct challenge to the theological direction of the ELCA. Although the conferences ended up dividing over ecclesiology — an issue still officially unresolved in the ELCA — they marked the beginning of the reform movements that have sprung up throughout the ELCA’s life.

[16] After his resignation, Braaten moved to Northfield, Minnesota, and founded — together with Robert Jenson and their wives — The Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. This, too, was a “free” platform for serious theological work outside the official structures of the ELCA through conferences, books and the journal Pro Ecclesia.

[17] However, Braaten goes to some length in his book to show that the CCET was nevertheless designed to be a constructive force for promoting theological integrity in the ELCA and beyond. He and Jenson wrote to a number of ELCA bishops to notify them of CCET’s founding and to explain its purpose. He includes excerpts from the replies of several who responded. One consistent theme in them was a concern that CCET would not “become a Center that fostered or even promoted any bashing of church leaders, the ELCA approved constitution, policies, social statements, etc.” (136) Already in 1991, it appears that many ELCA leaders were more concerned about defending and protecting the denomination’s reputation and institutional health than about engaging the serious theological issues that CCET was trying to address — a critique that has intensified over time.

[18] Braaten’s work through CCET was also the culmination of his long-standing commitment to ecumenism. His ecumenical understanding of Lutheranism as a reform movement within the Church catholic, combined with his frustration at the erosion of Lutheran theology, contributed to the confusion described at the beginning of this review. On another occasion, I heard Braaten strongly advocate for a teaching magisterium in Lutheranism, an idea that many Lutherans in that particular room found antithetical to the Reformation commitment to sola scriptura. Yet, he unapologetically promotes his understanding of Lutheran ecumenism — “evangelical without being Protestant, catholic without being Roman, and orthodox without being Eastern.” (xi, italics in original) — as being most faithful to the desires of Luther and the reformers.

[19] After 14 years at CCET, Braaten retired to Arizona, but his work as an “old lion” of Lutheran theology was not done. In 2005, he wrote an open letter to Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, that was sharply critical of its drift away from confessional Lutheranism toward Liberal Protestantism. The letter was posted on the internet and drew wide attention, both positive and negative. Almost overnight, Braaten’s reputation expanded from being an academic theologian to being a popular voice for theological reform in the ELCA.

[20] The entire text of the letter is printed in Because of Christ and it is written in Braaten’s characteristically sharp and bold style. Yet, it, too, carries the distinct tones of lament. The final paragraph reads, “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’ll all cry out, ‘Lord, have mercy!'” (171)

[21] The publication of this letter pushed Braaten back into a public role, although more for lay audiences than academic ones, and more boldly in opposition to the theological direction of the ELCA. He has worked closely with leaders of Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Reform). He and his wife organized and funded the theological conference that accompanied the Lutheran CORE convocation in Columbus, Ohio, in August, 2010, and a similar conference to be held this summer. Braaten remains physically active and mentally acute, expressing his hope “to continue to write and publish as long as God gives me strength of mind and body.” (179)

[22] Still, the book seems to end abruptly and, again, on a note of lament. Apart from a few personal notes, he concludes by saying, “The voices that speak for the ELCA in all its expressions — church bureaucrats from the presiding bishop on down, editors of its official publications, synodical bishops, seminary professors, whatever — have been muted by the collective impact of radical feminism, religious pluralism, historical relativism, and moral antinomianism. The exceptions to this pessimistic generalization are few and far between. For the most part they cower in the shadows, feeling outnumbered and outmaneuvered, subject to marginalization and humiliation. How do I know? Because they have told me so.” (178)

[23] It is a sad, even tragic, finale for one who devoted his entire life to studying, writing and teaching Lutheran theology for the sake of the Church. It is the haunting cry of one who fears that his life’s work is slipping away, even as much of it remains in print, and the faith which shaped, inspired and drove him is being squandered by those who should be “handing it on as of first importance.”

[24] In that sense, the book ends up concerning the story of Lutheranism in modern America as much as the story of Carl Braaten. That was no doubt his intent, since the opening sentence declares, “This is a theological autobiography.” (vii, italics in original) But it suggests that the most important question raised by his account is not whether he told his own story accurately or well, but whether his judgment on the current state of Lutheranism — particularly in the ELCA — is true. Is this just the sour musing of an elder who finds himself as out of touch today as he once believed his teachers were or is it a prophetic voice of one sent by God, as Jeremiah was long ago, to decry those who are “saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14b) If one is convinced of the former, then Because of Christ is a quick and entertaining read for anyone interested in Lutheran theology. If one is convinced of the latter, then it becomes not the real Carl Braaten, but the real Lutherans who need to stand up.


1. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).

Scott Grorud

Scott Grorud serves as a pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Hutchinson, Minnesota.