Monday, July 18, 2005

Thoughts On Carl Braaten's Open Letter

Carl Braaten's recent Open Letter to Mark Hanson has caused quite a splash in the blogosphere. It's encouraging to see the level of interest. The letter is a complaint about the widespread influence of liberal Protestantism in ELCA. Though it may be a bit opaque to lay people, everyone who follows the national goings on in the ELCA will have some feel for what it's about. If you want a clearer understanding, Chip Frontz has posted an excellent guide to the theology of the letter here.

Dr. Braaten is a distinguished theologian, and is certainly well-qualified to raise an alarm such as he has. I am not a person of such distinction, and in what follows it will be apparent that I am a layman and an amateur. (As C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Any theologian will see easily enough what, and how little, I have read.") Perhaps my opinion here can be seen as a view from the trenches.

As I read in Dr. Braaten's letter of "the apostasy that looms on the horizon of our beloved Lutheran Church" I can't help but hear reference to the present sexuality issues. I recognize that his letter is actually addressing a more general theological problem, but all Christianity must eventually be practical Christianity, and right now this is the topic in which the theological controversy is manifested. It's unfortunate that Dr. Braaten does not address this topic directly, because it leaves me unclear as to exactly where he stands and makes his overall argument difficult to evaluate.

I consider myself to be a traditional Christian and a relatively confessional Lutheran. Yet I cannot align myself with the renewing movements in the ELCA that I've come across. The congregation of which I am a member has an active Word Alone group. A couple of years ago, one of the leaders of this group came to me and asked how I, as a vocal admirer of Luther, could support CCM. Now the people in this same group are puzzled as to how I, as a faithful Christian, could hold the views I do on homosexuality.

You see, although I hold traditional views on things like the authority of scripture, I am in favor of full acceptance of gay and lesbian Christians in the Christian community. Notice that I didn't say that I am in favor of blessing same-sex unions and ordaining people in committed same-sex relationships. Being forced to take a position on those questions, I do support the so-called "liberal" side, but those aren't really the things I am in favor of. I am in favor of full acceptance of gay and lesbian Christians in our community of faith. And I believe the Bible tells me that I should be. If that causes me to keep some questionable company, so be it. One of the myths surrounding the sexuality issue is that everyone on the "liberal" side is theologically liberal. It simply isn't so.

But addressing Dr. Braaten's concerns more directly, the issue, as I understand it, is one of where God speaks. Chip Frontz, in his explanation of Dr. Braaten's letter, cited the United Church of Christ's slogan "God is Still Speaking" as symptomatic of a Protestant culture that sees God's will as being revealed in personal experience and in society. I can certainly see the danger there, but I nevertheless do believe that God is still speaking, and I believe that such is a fundamental tenet of Lutheranism.

Karlfried Froehlich observes that while the conservative Anglican J.I. Packer wrote a book on the authority of scripture titled God Has Spoken if a Lutheran had written the book it would have been called God Is Speaking. This is, of course, because of the Lutheran belief that the Word of God is a Living Word which addresses us as we hear it. Dr. Braaten cites Wolfhart Pannenburg to the effect that "a church that cannot take the Scriptures seriously is no longer a church that belongs to Jesus Christ" but I hope he would agree that a church which no longer allows itself to be addressed by the Scriptures is also no longer a church that belongs to Jesus Christ.

Dr. Braaten names Bonhoeffer among those who taught him what it means to be a Lutheran. I also have been shaped by Bonhoeffer, though only through my own understanding of his writings. Although I could misunderstand, I find much in Bonhoeffer's Ethics to support my way of approaching the sexuality issue. In particular, Bonhoeffer says that the word of God cannot be heard and stored away for later use. Rather, hearing and obeying must be united, otherwise it is no longer God to whom we are responding. It is in this sense that I feel compelled to stand in union with gay and lesbian Christians regardless of the theology of those who are also standing with them.

Thus while I do hear the truth in Dr. Braaten's letter, and I share much of his concern, I believe we must be careful in how we apply this concern. How fitting that this letter emerged in the week in which the parable of the wheat and the tares was the Gospel text!

7 comments:

John C. said...

Melancthon,
I addressed an open letter to Carl Braaten and I have received a reply. Both may be read at my blog www.knockingone.motime.com.

John Carlson

Andy said...

Hi John,

I had read the letters on your blog, but your main page looks somehow truncated today. I'm not sure it showed all of Braaten's response.

John C. said...

Melancthon,
Someone else reported the same dificulty, but I just checked it an it was there in its entirety. Let me know if you continue to have difficulty reading it.

John

John C. said...

Melancthon,
I'm glad you pointed this out to me. When I viewed the blog from my computer the entire response was present, but when I checked from my wife's computer it was indeed truncated. Problem should be resolved now.

John

LutheranChik said...

Kind of a crabby response...crabby and passive-aggressive. Oops...that must be the evil feminist in me speaking. [rolling eyes]

Mel, as someone fairly familiar with my p.o.v. you can probably see why I too find myself incredibly frustrated by Braaten. I'm on his side in many ways.

LutheranChik said...

BTW, John, if you're reading this, good for you in asking him to state his case clearly and publicly a la the 95 Theses.

John C. said...

Thank you LutheranChik, I hope you scrolled down far enough to see my "Friday Bloom Blogging" post.