Whatever Became of Carl Braaten? Selective Critical Reflections on Carl E. Braaten's Because of Christ: Memoirs of a Lutheran Theologian

Article excerpt

Carl Braaten as "a Lutheran theologian" is one thing, but Carl Braaten as "a Lutheran theologian" is quite another! Just so, some commemorate his influence with joy; others remember him less cheerfully. This situation neither surprises nor much disturbs Carl--I'm going to say "Carl" because we have been friends, not bosom buddies or even close personal friends, but friends nevertheless. He has also been for me an important mentor, one-or two-steps removed, so to speak.

Carl candidly admits this ambivalent estimation and perhaps even sees it as a mark of a theologian. After all, claims Carl, "the idea of a noncontroversial theology [is] an oxymoron" (Memoirs, 58)! Still, a second factor contributes to "Braaten-ambivalence," and it resides in Carl himself, in the rhetorical modes and moods that he has honed. Simply put, two Carls show up in his vocation as a Lutheran theologian. In order to come to grips with "the two Carls," first, I will review his understanding of the vocation of a Lutheran theologian; second, I will stipulate certain traits of each of the Cads; third, I will chart the career path of the two Carls; and finally, I will take a deeper look at the toll on others, and on Carl, that one of the two Carls has exacted.

Memoirs, of all possible genres, deserve especially to be read and commented upon through a hermeneutic of respect and generosity, that reverential posture of first resort, of shalom, of gratitude, even of joy. Only as a necessary last resort ought readers of memoirs observe that duty entailed in a hermeneutic of suspicion to bear a posture of critique in order to protect others from harm. Still, even this duty of suspicion embedded in the responsibility to protect must meet the norm of respect.

Vocation of a Theologian, and Lutheran Too

"The theologian's task," asserts Carl, "is to turn the spotlight of the gospel on the intellectual challenges of our time and to keep the church from crossing the line from orthodoxy into heresy" (Memoirs, vii). Having so stated this twofold assignment, he turns immediately to elaborate a little on heresy. Heresy is "debilitating ... causes spiritual anemia ... [and] substitutes ideology for real theology... [having] stricken large segments of Christianity in Europe" (Memoirs, vii--viii). He then notes:

  But I am not interested in pinning the label "heretic" or "apostate"
  on any theologian. Oh, well, there may be a few such, especially
  those in outright denial of the divinity of Christ or the
  resurrection of Jesus. (Memoirs, viii)

Will This Predicted Temperance Hold or Not?

Commendably, Carl tells us that Christocentricity has always been "the center of my existence as a Christian theologian" (Memoirs, viii). He finds this in Martin Luther's memorable "was Christum treibt" ("what conveys Christ") and in the Lutheran Confessions' "propter Christum" ("because of Christ"), the main title of Memoirs. Theologians are called to stand on the shoulders of the great theological traditions. It is not their task "to invent a new Christianity out of his or her religious experience and imagination." Already in the Preface he begins to excoriate "radical theological feminists" for doing the latter (Memoirs, ix).

Carl notes, "These memoirs relate my struggle to reclaim the original intent of the Lutheran Reformation ... [that is,] to summon the church to become truly evangelical, catholic, and orthodox" (Memoirs, xi). In point of fact, his own self-understanding is: "evangelical without being Protestant, catholic without being Roman, and orthodox without being Eastern" (Memoirs, xi). As he progresses through Memoirs, "Protestantism" increasingly becomes more and more his favorite pejorative, especially when coupled with "liberal." In Memoirs at least he more often caricatures "liberal Protestantism" than analyzes it (Memoirs, 166-171). In the mid-1970s Carl participated in a Vanderbilt University writing project along with well-known theologians from numerous Protestant seminaries and divinity schools, nearly all senior white males. …